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LAHORE: Nearly 500 shops and valuables worth billions of rupees were gutted as a massive fire broke out at Hafiz Trade Centre early on Sunday.

Talking to Business Recorder, All Pakistan Anjuman-e-Tajran central secretary general Naeem Mir said the fire erupted on the second floor of the building which gradually spread to the fourth floor. "There are around 1,000 shops in the Hafeez Trader Centre and nearly 400 to 500 shops of the building have been gutted," he confirmed, adding that the trader community is in deep pain.

According to Naeem, the fire broke out at around 6am and the teams of Rescue 1122 and Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) reached there after a delay of an hour which resulted in the spread of the blaze. Replying to a query about the availability of fire extinguishers inside the building, Mir said the plaza was closed due to Sunday and there were only a few people there.

The APAT secretary general rejected the Punjab government's constituted fact-finding body and demanded that lists of affected traders be prepared immediately by taking on board president of the Hafeez Trader Centre only.

It may be mentioned that valuables of a number of poor people, who used to earn their livelihood on day-to-day basis, were also gutted.

After the fire got intense, some traders standing in a greenbelt outside the Hafeez Centre started recitation of Azan to seek help of the Allah almighty.

The other traders shouted slogans against the Hafeez Centre administration and the government and questioned who will compensate them with their 'actual loss.'

According to police and rescuers, around 25 people were rescued from the building and shifted to different hospitals. Of them, the condition of two people was said to be critical. However, there were no causalities and the cooling process was under way till filing of this report. They said it would be premature to 'declare' the cause of fire but added that apparently it seems that the incident took place due to short-circuit or a cylinder blast.

Speaking to the media outside the Hafeez Centre, Rescue 1122 DG Dr Rizwan Naseer dispelled the impression that the district government failed to extinguish fire due to the shortage of water supply saying that the fire fighters faced difficulties due to burning of plastic items and electronic gadgets, including batteries, in bulk quantity. A thick black cloud of smoke appeared after the fire and remained visible till the sunset.

At the rooftop of the building, the DG said, there were drums of diesel which also caught fire leaving the rescuers in difficult and dangerous situation. Blasting of batteries and gas cylinders on after another due to the fire also complicated the cooling process, he added.

To avoid any untoward incident, police cordoned off the Gulberg Main Boulevard, restricting movements of people by putting in place an alternative traffic plan which created traffic congestion.

Former LCCI president Irfan Iqbal Sheikh, Punjab Health Minister Dr Yasmeen Rashid, Lahore Commissioner Zulfiqar Ghuman, Deputy Commissioner (DC) Mudassir Riaz and Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Umar Sheikh besides others also visited the Hafeez Centre and spoke to the media.

Shortly after reaching, the health minister left the site after she faced tough time from traders who demanded "immediate" compensation of their losses. Meanwhile, Commissioner Zulfiqar Ghuman constituted a 14-member inquiry committee to look into the incident and directed the authorities concerned to submit a preliminary report within 24 hours.

The committee comprises officials from the Metropolitan Corporation of Lahore (MCL) and Rescue 1122 and will ascertain the "underlying causes of the fire incident", determine loss of property, examine infrastructural stability as well as assess the efficacy of emergency response by the concerned department.

The rescue officials said the initial survey suggests the fire broke out due to a short circuit, adding that a definite reason could only be given after the report was submitted.

Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar took notice of the incident and directed that authorities use all resources to put out the fire. "Priority should be given to rescuing people stuck inside the building," he said and directed immediate investigation into the incident.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020