Burned alive: Who is to blame?

Published: September 13, 2012

The burnt victims were left to be identified in the vehicles parked all over the hospital. PHOTO: AFP

The Civil Hospital Karachi was shadowed in a strange silence and gloom yesterday morning. Over fifty ambulances sprawled the space outside the morgue.

Every few minutes a siren blasted from round the corner, and another ambulance made its entry. As a group of anxious relatives surrounded the ambulance, no one spoke. Many families repeated the exercise, till suddenly a cry of horror would break cut the deadly silence like a knife. As each member of the family peeked inside the ambulance, their grief, shock and despair would give way to tears ─ they had identified their loved one ─ only that the victim no longer lives.

They too fell prey to one of the most tragic incident this city has witnessed. The fire broke in a textile factory on Hub River road and could not be controlled even after twelve hours of fire-fighting.

As the ambulances poured in with more dead bodies, there was no more space in the morgue. The burnt victims were left to be identified in the vehicles parked all over the hospital. Grieving families could be seen sitting in the corners wiping their tear-stained faces. Some fainted with the shock and were taken to the Emergency Department for treatment.

Every few minutes, the death toll rose. Even the Operation Theatre Complex elevator controller wiped a tear off as he updated me with the new death toll of over 200. Every single person in the hospital was affected by the incident.

The condition in which the victims’ bodies were brought was beyond belief. They were black, charred and in different physical state altogether that spoke volumes of their last attempts to escape their hell on earth. The families recognised them from left overs of their clothes, slippers, jewellery and even some National Identity Cards (NICs). As each grieved family recognised their dead loved one, they left in the ambulance along with them. Hundreds still stayed in the court yard of the Civil Hospital, waiting anxiously for news they did not want hear.

The fire that broke out in the textile factory in Baldia Town had engulfed the building within hours. It is reported to have broken out at 6pm when approximately over a thousand workers were present. The intensity and heat from the fire challenged the fire brigade as they continued to wrestle with it. They managed to save a only a few workers while the others either burned or suffocated to death.

This textile factory on Hub River road is alleged to have a single exit. There is absolutely no evidence of a fire escape, extinguishers or even safety protocols. The workers trapped inside could not escape from the raging flames and tried to huddle in the back of the building. Some of them jumped from the second and third floors to save their lives. According to reports, women and children were also employed at the factory and many died in this tragic incident.

The owners of this factory obviously did not expect a calamity of this nature. Even so, they did absolutely nothing to provide safety to their employees in the event of one occurring. Having access to a fire exit should have been a basic right of the workers. Sadly, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and water sprinklers are considered a luxury in this part of the world.

This incident exposes the abhorrent condition of our industry in terms of protection of its workers from emergencies. Fire escapes and emergency warning systems should be a mandatory requirement before a factory is given license to operate. Moreover, fire safety drills should be conducted regularly – no room for argument here. The buildings should have a supply of fire detectors and fire extinguishers available at all times; this should be the rule for all work places regardless of the size or the people they employ.

This grave tragedy should be an eye-opener for all those other industries that do not provide basic rights to their employees.

In the end, those who were responsible for this fire and for the sealing of exits should be brought to justice and an example should made out of them.

Who do you think should be held accountable for the fires in the factories of Pakistan?

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Jahanzeb Effendi

Dr Jahanzeb Effendi

A young doctor, First Responder and Co-founder of First Response Initiative of Pakistan, FRIP. Training the general public to become first responders. Aspires to be a Cardiac Transplant Surgeon and build Pakistan's first Organ Sharing Network. Believes in writing for change. He tweets as @Jahanzebeffendi (twitter.com/Jahanzebeffendi)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Fizza

    A painful incident indeed. The problem is that we haven’t learn anything from past incidents and there is no hope that we will learn anything from this. Recommend

  • Raw is War

    the whole building looks like a trap. this kind of buildings can never be factories.Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/pugnate Noman Ansari

    I work in the leather industry in Pakistan. These places aren’t factories. They are houses that have been converted into factories.

    The basements have no windows, no escape plans… nothing. If a fire breaks out, there is absolutely nothing you can do. Watching this on TV was just terrible. Recommend

  • kanwal

    What a sad day for karachi….what a tragedy. may they rest in peace. And the owners should be sentenced to death really.Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/pugnate Noman Ansari

    I think it is easy to demand the owners be sentenced to death, but no one knew a fire would break out. It is important to realize they didn’t start the fire, nor did they try to kill someone. All of these factories operate like this.

    With items stored in factories worth a large fortune, that if the factory owners lost they’d be bankrupt, they take these security precautions. Factories being robbed is quite normal, and the government provides no protection to factory owners.

    Please understand, almost every factory in Pakistan operates like this. There are no guidelines for fire safety.

    If you think these measures are tough, please understand one robbery can put a factory owner in 20 years of debit. I know one factory owner who lost everything and then attempted suicide.

    So when they restrict the passages of these factories they don’t do it because of cruelty. What happened was terrible. :( I hope guidelines are placed.

    I hope scapegoats aren’t created. This isn’t ONE person’s fault. Recommend

  • http://pakistani-revival.blogspot.com Ovais

    respect for civil honestly … u guys work long hours with meagre pay … amazing .. keep it upRecommend

  • Rana tayyeb

    It was really terrible. Very sorry to hear. Recommend

  • http://lonepkliberal.wordpress.com Loneliberal PK

    In Pakistan, a labourer’s life is far cheaper than a safety protocol and fire suppression system. There are no safety drills, no emergency exits, no water sprinklers, and a firefighter is essentially a gardener with a bigger hose.

    The nation has been lulled to believe that death by fire, disease, car-crash and a falling brick at the construction site, is something that just happens. That it’s all God’s will, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

    Change does not come gift-wrapped at your doorstep. People need to demand better safety measures for our workers as well as the general public.Recommend

  • asad

    Noman Ansari,

    Human life is more important than blocking robber escape routes or profit generation.

    When Pakistanis such as you realize this, hopefully then their life can improve. Until then, there is no hope.Recommend

  • Nandita.

    @Noman Ansari:

    I agree with a lot of things you write on this site but my ideas differ in this regard.

    Please understand, almost every factory in Pakistan operates like this. There are no guidelines for fire safety.
    Are there no laws in Pakistan regarding this ? I am asking because I am not aware.
    If there are no laws then that’s plain wrong. Factories ( even in developing countries ) should not be allowed to operate the way they currently do.
    As LoneLiberal Pk rightly pointed out , people have been lulled to believe that death by fire etc is something that just happens.
    While I understand that the owners obviously would not want this kind of destruction, it is their responsibility to ensure the safety of workers in their factories.
    The owners may not have started the fire and would not have wanted these deaths to occur – yes, what you say is true. But owners should be held accountable for such tragedies;that’s how it works the world over. The fact that they didn’t start the fire is of little consequence.I mean, if I mow down 10 people with my car while over speeding is the court going to spare me because my intention was not to kill ? No, I will be charged because I was the one driving the car. These owners are the ones ” driving their factories/companies”, they are the ones running it so they should have had some safety precautions in place and if the lack/absence of such precautions led to deaths then some punishment is definitely in order.
    The fact that every other factory operates like this and therefore the owners of this factory should not be dragged to court/prison does not seem logical and right to me. That’s like saying every other student cheats in the exams but if i am the only one caught, i should not be thrown out of the examination hall because the examiner should understand that other kids are doing it as well and getting away with it.
    I don’t know if the owners can be punished under pakistani law. If they can – it’s great. And if they can’t then it’s high time the laws are changed.Factories should be issued licences only if they comply with certain set safety regulations.
    I wouldn’t use the word scapegoat here , the idea is about setting precedents. Too many factories must have gotten away with this kind of carelessness but a start has to be made somewhere; why not start with jailing the owners of the textile factory on Hub river road ?Recommend

  • Sami

    It takes 3 mins for a fire to go from controllable to un-controllable …. the best case response time of emergency services in developed countries is at least 5 min …. a fire extinguisher costs 1000 rs and can easily put out a controllable fire …. now we do blame the “MAN” for all the evil in the universe …..but how many of us have fire extinguishers in our own homes ??Recommend

  • http://zaidzamanhamid.wordpress.com/ Zaid Hamid

    The cavemen who invented fire.Recommend

  • Parvez

    On ET’s home page it says that the factory was not even registered. Now this is laughable because it shows the panic in the government departments to save their own skins and unnecessarily so because as someone wagered Rs 5 that nothing will happen and there were no takers.Recommend

  • anonymous

    Funny how everyone seems to blame the owners yet nobody is considering their loss of millions in property, equipment damage, loss of workforce, lost orders, future incomes and many other things. Nobody expects this sort of thing to happen but when these factories were actually made 20-30 years ago these protocols were not necessary.
    The government should ensure construction of safety protocols on all the new factories being built. What exactly should owners do about factories that the structure cannot be changed or amended upon? The workforce that works knows well enough what hazards can arise and they are not forced to work in such places they can always find an alternative.Recommend

  • stenson

    @Loneliberal PK: The Sind government should resign in shame becuase ultimately they are responsible for not taking care of the province.Recommend

  • Saleha

    @Noman Ansari:
    You can’t defend evil by with evil. If factories are facing robbery and state is not helping that is one evil. Factories forgoing all safety precautions to save themselves is another evil. If we start justifying like this, then it will be utter chaos dont you think?
    May be you were close to the person who committed suicide and I understand your pain but you must not be carried away by that and think of the 100s of people who lost their lives.Recommend

  • BUMBOO

    I think what Noman Ansari is trying to say is the fault does not vest with one factory owner alone. (Although personally id like to have a ‘go’ at him) Asking for the death sentence is very harsh considering that there are over 50,000 factories in Pakistan who operate out of the scope of safety rules and regulations. Rightfully then, all factory owners would need to be sentenced to death irrespective.

    Being a HSE specialist myself and seeing it from an unbiased side, the following departments must be taken to task immediately:
    1) EOBI
    2) KWSB
    3) Governor Sind
    4) CDGK

    You see, the essence of this matter is that our country has its roots in corruption. Even if you try to do things the right way, the government authorities will ensure you don’t. I know what it is like to deal with EOBI and their senseless rules and regulations. They make it so difficult to operate business that one is forced to skip the formalities and take the short cut. This factory owner unfortunately has the misfortune of the fire that resulted in the deaths of 300 workers. Yes he will bear the brunt of everyone’s anger and disgust while those who are really to blame will as usual, GET AWAY :) Recommend

  • xoya

    The GOVT at least now should carry out inspection of all factories and FORCE them to follow safety guidelines within a month or force factory closure & High Penalty .
    So that they may even FEEL it .
    No more humans around us anymoreRecommend

  • JD

    Who’s responsible? The one’s who locked them in the factory!!!Recommend

  • OOZZ

    every one knows State is weak in management therefore owner should have taken precautions , its not fair, 1000 to 1500 workers , work in only 1 acres of land, every inch of land was utilized by greedy owners, the doors were locked on owners instruction according to interviews by survivors, to prevent theft of buttons and needles as it happened in the past, @noman as owners were covered by insurance so they lost nothingRecommend

  • AY

    What a tragedy. I place most of the blame on the factory owners because it is their negligence that played a big role. I work in a garment manufacturing factory in Korangi and I can assure you that we schedule regular fire drills, have numerous factory exits and fire extinguishers. Moreover, our exit paths are not blocked by fabric rolls (as this factory had). The fabric store is fire-proof and the chemicals are kept in a safe fire-proof area. All these precautions must be taken. We have international certifications and these agencies regularly conduct audits on our procedures and standards. In the pictures I saw of this factory, I was shocked at the structure. The owners had built up their levels from the boundary wall up. So the factory walls are also the boundary walls. This just shows how the owners tried to greedily maximize their space and essentially created a cramped box for their workers (where would the “assembly area in case of emergency” be?). I was shocked to find out that this factory is producing garments for export. Most U.S. and European companies ask for certifications, either SA8000 or Sedex, among others. If this facility had been certified, I can assure you that such a large scale tragedy wouldn’t have occurred. Recommend