The death toll from a pair of devastating factory fires that broke out in Pakistan’s two biggest cities rose yesterday to 314 people, many of whom perished because they were unable to escape buildings that lacked emergency exits and basic safety equipment, such as alarms and sprinklers.
The horrific toll highlights the atrocious state of industrial safety in Pakistan, where many factories are set up illegally in the country’s densely populated cities and owners often pay officials bribes to ignore safety violations.
The more deadly of the two blazes, which both erupted on Tuesday night, was at a garment factory in the southern city of Karachi, the country’s economic heart. The death toll there rose to 289, as firefighters battled the flames for hours, senior government official Roshan Ali Sheikh said.
Sheikh said the death toll could rise because rescue workers were still pulling bodies out from the site in Karachi.
Most of the deaths were caused by suffocation as people caught in the basement were unable to escape when it filled with smoke, firefighter Ehtisham-ud-Din said.
There were no fire exits and at least one of the main doors leading out was locked, he said.
It was unclear what caused the fire.
Workers on higher floors of the five-story building struggled to make it out of windows that were covered with metal bars. Many were injured when they jumped from the building.
Another injured factory worker, Mohammad Ilyas, speaking from hospital, said he was working with about 50 other men and women on one of the floors when suddenly a fireball came from the staircase.
“I jumped from my seat, as did others, and rushed toward the windows, but iron bars on the windows barred us from escaping. Some of us quickly took tools and machines to break the iron bars,” he said.
His leg was injured in the fall. Others were not so lucky.
A reporter saw a charred body partially hanging out one of the factory’s barred windows. It appeared the victim tried to escape, but could not make it through the bars.
The factory’s managers have fled and are being sought by police, Sheikh said.
A fire also swept through a four-story shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore on Tuesday night, killing 25 people, some from burns and some from suffocation, senior police officer Multan Khan said.
It broke out when people in the building were trying to start their generator after the electricity went out. Sparks from the generator made contact with chemicals used to make shoes, igniting the blaze.