Last update: Sun, 22 Jan 2017 03pm
Home » Weekend Magazine »

Tragedy of profound loss

"There was a stampede as the fire spread; I jumped from the third floor. We started running towards the exit. All workers were running and pushing each other. People had tried to break the metal grilles but could not. The door to the back stairs leading to the roof was also locked". Allah Warayo, a survivor of garment factory told about the incident with tears rolling from his eyes.

More than 289 people were killed in a fire that swept through a garment factory overnight in the port city of Karachi. According to the survivors, more than 500 people, including 50 women, were present inside the factory when the fire surrounded the building on Tuesday evening at around 6.30pm, half an hour before its closing time.

Fortunately, half of the over 1,000 factory employees had already left the ill-fated building by that time. The incident is Pakistan's worst industrial accident. Flames and smoke brushed off the cramped textile factory in Baldia Town, creating panic among the hundreds of poorly paid workers who had been making undergarments and plastic tools.

Workers had little time or opportunity to escape from the four-storey building's single exit - many could do so only by jumping from those windows they could get out of. Dozens suffered broken bones or worse. Those trapped inside the building frantically rang their friends and relatives as flames engulfed it, What are the causes?

The actual cause of the fire so far remained unclear. The cause was still being investigated, but workers believe a faulty generator may have caused it. Some say the fire started when a boiler exploded and the flames ignited chemicals that were stored in the factory. One survivor, Muhammad Aslam, said he heard two loud blasts before the factory filled first with smoke, then with the desperate screams of his fellow workers.

The fire broke out as workers were trying to start a generator after electricity went out in the building. Fire broke out at approximately 6:30PM when there was a blast in generator. It took few hours to spread throughout the building but sadly, it did not let hundreds of workers to take breath again.

Many of the deaths were caused by suffocation, as people trapped in the basement were unable to escape when it filled with smoke. When fires start in enclosed spaces such as buildings, the smoke rising from the fire is trapped by the ceiling and then spreads in all directions to form an ever-deepening layer over the entire room space. The smoke will pass through any holes or gaps in the walls, ceiling and floor into other parts of the building. The heat from the fire is trapped in the building and the temperature rises. Smoke produced by a fire also contains toxic gases which are harmful to people.

A fire in a building generates smoke that is thick and black, obscures vision, causes great difficulty in breathing and can block the escape routes. Same phenomena happened in the ill-fated factory. Karachi fire Chief Ehtesham Salim said: "We found people who died because of suffocation caused by the highly toxic smoke. They died first and then their bodies were burned by the raging fire."

Upon reaching the factory, the fire department found that only one gate was opened out of the four. The fire tender entered the factory premises and the factory authorities ordered to close the gate, not allowing anyone to leave the premises without checking.

Who is responsible?

The garment factory fire immediately revived long-running questions about the regulation of Pakistan's manufacturing sector, centered in Karachi, and of the vital textiles industry in particular.

Unfortunately, there is no appropriate execution of building control laws and industrial regulations. The non-implementation of safety standards and the massive corruption in government departments led to such blatant violations of the law. The Karachi factory violated the building codes. Three separate production units produced candles, plastic materials and garments. All of these materials are highly flammable.

Raza Rumi, an analyst at the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute, said the fire in Karachi was one of the deadliest industrial accidents in the country's history."It is reflective of the utter collapse of regulation and the enforcement of labor laws in the country," he said. The problem has gotten worse in recent years as the federal government handed over factory oversight to provincial authorities, but local governments failed to develop legislation enforcing labor laws or basic safety regulations, Rumi said. Many Pakistani factories lack even basic safety equipment, such as alarms and sprinklers.

At the outset It is responsibility of factory owners to provide their employees with clear and relevant information on the risks to them identified by the fire risk assessment, about the measures they have taken to prevent fires, and how these measures will protect their employees, if a fire breaks out. However, the present horrific incident highlights the terrible state of industrial safety in Pakistan and criminal negligence of factory owners.

Factory owners must be aware of the presence of any dangerous substances and the risk this presents. There should be a suitable means of contacting the emergency services and provide them with any relevant information about dangerous substances. They must provide appropriate information, instruction and training to their employees, during their normal working hours, about the fire precautions in the workplace and from time to time throughout the period, they work for the employers.

The employers of the Karachi garment Factory silently and criminally ignore safety provision of their employees. Regretfully, Factory workers in majority of factories are working in almost slave-like conditions, Millions of workers across the country toil under inhumane working conditions.

These factories packed like a box with little room left for ventilation. The ill-fated workers of the factory had no emergency exits, and no proper training to cope with the emergency. In general, there should normally be at least two escape routes from all parts of the building, but a single escape route may be acceptable in some circumstances (The building is accommodating less than 60 people.). Two escape routes are necessary to minimize the risk of people becoming trapped. There were no safety measures taken in the building design. There was no emergency exit. Panicked workers in the garment factory had only one way out since the factory's owner had locked all the other exit doors in response to a recent theft, officials said. Many victims suffocated in the smoke-filled basement. An injured factory worker, Mohammad Ilyas, speaking from the hospital, said he was working with roughly 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. "That was how we managed to jump out of the windows down to the ground floor." All the emergency exits (if there were any as some media reports suggest they were not at all present) were also closed.

Factory workers had to face long hours, poor working conditions, and job insecurity. Factory conditions are, deplorable. Lack of effective government regulation led to unsafe and unhealthy work sites. Despite the fact that Textiles are a major source of foreign currency for Pakistan, accounting for 7.4 percent of its gross domestic product in 2011 and employing 38 percent of the manufacturing work force. Pakistani cotton products are highly sought in neighbouring India and form the backbone of a burgeoning fashion industry that caters to the elite.

In order to save money many employers hired women and children to work in factories because these workers would work for lower wages than men would. Factory owners prefer to employ unskilled, young workers for daily wages According to an online business information service, the owner of the Karachi factory, Abdul Aziz's company, Ali Enterprises, manufactured denim, knitted garments and hosiery and had capital of between $10 million and $50 million. Garment manufacturing, like other industrial processes, can be dangerous labor. It is important for employers to be alert of the dangers related with garment manufacturing and take precautions to guard against work-related injuries.

No matter what the reason was, and who is responsible, hundreds perish in Karachi factory fire incident. A Street of Orangi Town had 17 funerals at a time, a family lost its six members and a brother jumped into the fire to save his sisters & lost his life too. There were hundreds of grieved families still searching for their loved ones in hospital mortuary just like Rani Bibi. She said her two sons-in-law called Tuesday night to say they were trapped in the factory and asked her to tell their wives to take good care of their children. She has not heard again from them, "We don't know where they are," said Bibi, tears flowing down her face. "I hope to hear their voices. My two daughters' lives are ruined forever."

Copyright Business Recorder, 2012