Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari ordered an investigation after a fire in a garment factory in the commercial capital of Karachi left 258 people dead in the country’s biggest industrial accident.
The owners of Ali Enterprises, which exports garments, have been barred from leaving the country, Ishrat-ul-Ibad, governor of Sindh Province, told reporters at the site. Police conducted raids across the city to locate the owners, ARY Television reported.
Karachi, a city of 20 million people, is home to over 12,000 factories, many of which don’t comply with safety standards. Thousands of industrial workers are employed as casual labor and not insured for accidents.
“Inspection of industrial units by the provincial labor department was mandatory under the rules until 1997 when it was banned after demands by influential industrialists in the Sindh and Punjab provinces,” Shujah-ud-Din, a senior research associate at the Pakistan Institute of Labour, Education and Research, said by phone from Karachi. Factory accidents claimed 419 lives in 2008, the latest data available, he said.
“The death toll was initially thought to be 289 but there was some double counting because bodies were being moved to different hospitals,” Shabih Siddiqui, a spokesman for the local government, said by phone.
The rescue effort continued through the night as firefighters tried to reach the basement where workers are thought to be trapped, Siddiqui said. There were over 2,000 people in the factory when the fire broke out. Phone calls to the office of Ali Enterprises went unanswered.
“This company exported to the U.S. and Europe so they would have had to comply with global safety standards under the rules of the World Trade Organization,” Asad Nisar, senior vice chairman of the SITE Association of Industry, a trade group representing factories in the area, said by phone.
The fire broke out shortly after 6 p.m. on Sept. 11 when the work shift usually changes, Zahid Ali, a worker at the stitching department on the second floor of the four-storey building, said by phone. A blast was heard when the generator failed to switch on after an electricity failure and smoke filled all the floors, he said.
Workers threw sewing machines at the windows in an attempt to escape since all the main exits on each floor were locked, said Ali. His brother, also a worker, suffered arm and leg fractures while escaping from the second floor. Those who couldn’t get out suffocated and collapsed, resulting in the large number of bodies that were charred beyond recognition, he said.
Cracks developed in the building after it caught fire, slowing the rescue effort, Ihtesham Uddin, the chief fire officer in Karachi, told reporters. “The number of casualties is so large because there were no emergency doors or extra stairways in the factory and the main doors were locked, which is surprising.”
The fire resulted in the most casualties in a single industrial incident in Pakistan’s history, according to the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan called upon the government to start criminal proceedings against the factory owners and ensure safe working conditions and effective monitoring, according to a statement.
The incident occurred the same evening as a shoe factory caught fire in the eastern city of Lahore, killing 25 people, Pakistani media reported.