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Huge death toll in Pakistan factory fires

September 12, 2012
KEYWORDS factory / karachi
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fireFrom Al Arabiya:

At least 261 people burnt to death as fires swept through two factories in Pakistan, police and government officials said on Wednesday, raising familiar questions about industrial safety in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation.

Flames raced through a garment factory in the teeming commercial capital of Karachi, killing 236 people. Weeping relatives in hospitals and morgues heaped criticism on the deeply unpopular government.

“People started screaming for their lives,” said Mohammad Asif, 20. “Everyone came to the window. I jumped from the third floor.”

“The bodies are badly charred,” Abdus Salam, a doctor at Karachi’s Civil Hospital, told Al Arabiya’s correspondent Babur Hussain, adding that several workers had suffered broken bones after jumping out of windows to escape the fire.

Mohammed Saleem, 32, who broke a leg after jumping out of the second floor, said he and his colleagues were hard at work late on Tuesday when flames suddenly reached their section.

“Around 150 employees were working at the time in one of the factory’s three round-the-clock shifts,” Saleem told Al Arabiya.

In the eastern city of Lahore, a fire raged in a shoe factory, killing at least 25 people.

Critics say Pakistan’s corrupt and ineffective government has failed to tackle the country’s problems. The country is racked by a Taliban insurgency, widespread poverty, spiraling crime and daily power cuts.

“The owners were more concerned with safeguarding the garments in the factory than the workers,” said garment factory employee Mohammed Pervez, holding up a photograph of his cousin, who is also a worker there and is missing.

“If there were no metal grilles on the windows a lot of people would have been saved. The factory was overflowing with garments and fabrics. Whoever complained was fired.”

At a Karachi hospital, about 30 bodies burnt beyond recognition were lined up at a morgue.

“There is no space left here. It’s full,” said ambulance worker Wasif Ali. “They keep coming.”

The provincial capital of Karachi is home to more than 18 million people.

Senior Superintendent of Police Amir Farooqi told Reuters that police were raiding buildings in different parts of Karachi to search for the factory owners.

Farooqi said 35 people were injured in the garment factory fire and bodies were still being recovered from the facility, which employed about 450 people.

The latest death toll in Karachi was 236, said police chief Iqbal Mahmoud.

Smoke was still rising from the factory as rescue workers pulled out charred corpses and covered them in white sheets. Relatives of workers stood in the street awaiting word of their fate. Several wept.

The cause of the garment factory fire was not clear.

“Within two minutes there was fire in the entire factory,” said worker Liaqat Hussain, 29, from his hospital bed where he was being treated for burns all over his body.

“The gate was closed. There was no access to get out, we were trapped inside.”

Rauf Siddiqi, the industry minister for Sindh province, said the factory owner was under investigation for negligence.

“We have ordered an inquiry into how the fire erupted and why proper emergency exits were not provided at the factory so that the workers could escape,” Siddiqi said, according to Al Arabiya correspondent.

In Lahore, workers at the shoe factory suspected that the fire was caused by a problem with a generator.

“We saw our colleagues burning alive, in flames,” said Shabdir Hussain, from his hospital bed. “We could do nothing. We saved our lives by jumping from the roof.”

Successive governments have been unable to provide a reliable power supply so factories have to have their own generators, powered by diesel or petrol, if they want to avoid regular, lengthy power cuts.

On Wednesday, a provincial minister ordered an inspection of all factories and industrial plants in Sindh province within 48 hours.

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