Fires engulf Pakistan factories killing 314 workers

KARACHI Wed Sep 12, 2012 8:24pm IST

1 of 5. Women grieve and wait outside a building for their relatives after a fire at a garment factory in Karachi September 12, 2012. At least 261 people burnt to death as fires swept through two factories in Pakistan, police and government officials said on Wednesday, raising questions about industrial safety in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation.

Credit: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

KARACHI (Reuters) - At least 314 people burnt to death as fire swept through factories in two cities in Pakistan, police and government officials said on Wednesday, raising questions about industrial safety in the South Asian nation.

Flames raced through a garment factory in the teeming commercial capital of Karachi, killing 289 people. Many people had been lining up to collect their paycheques, officials said.

Weeping relatives in hospitals and morgues heaped criticism on the deeply unpopular government.

"People started screaming for their lives," said Mohammad Asif, 20. "Everyone came to the window. I jumped from the third floor."

In the eastern city of Lahore, a fire raged in a shoe factory, killing at least 25 people.

Critics say nuclear-armed Pakistan's corrupt and ineffective government has failed to tackle the country's problems. The country is racked by a Taliban insurgency, widespread poverty, spiralling crime and daily power cuts.

"The owners were more concerned with safeguarding the garments in the factory than the workers," said garment factory employee Mohammad Pervez, holding up a photograph of his cousin, who is also a worker there and is missing.

"If there were no metal grilles on the windows a lot of people would have been saved. The factory was overflowing with garments and fabrics. Whoever complained was fired."

On Wednesday, a provincial minister ordered an inspection of all factories and industrial plants in Sindh province within 48 hours. Karachi, home to 18 million people, is Sindh's capital.

A preliminary provincial government report on the Lahore fire concluded that the closure of the emergency exits led to the deaths, and labour and safety regulations were not applied, government sources said.

At a Karachi hospital, about 30 bodies burnt beyond recognition were lined up at a morgue.

"There is no space left here. It's full," said ambulance worker Wasif Ali. "They keep coming."

POLICE HUNT FOR FACTORY OWNERS

Senior Superintendent of Police Amir Farooqi told Reuters that police were raiding buildings in different parts of Karachi to search for the factory owners.

Farooqi said 35 people were injured in the garment factory fire and bodies were still being recovered from the facility, which employed about 450 people. The latest death toll in Karachi was 289, said senior police official Fayyaz Leghari.

Smoke was still rising from the factory as rescue workers pulled out charred corpses and covered them in white sheets. Relatives of workers stood in the street awaiting word of their fate. Several wept.

The cause of the garment factory fire was not clear.

"Within two minutes there was fire in the entire factory," said worker Liaqat Hussain, 29, from his hospital bed where he was being treated for burns all over his body.

"The gate was closed. There was no access to get out, we were trapped inside."

In Lahore, workers at the shoe factory suspected that the fire was caused by a problem with a generator.

"We saw our colleagues burning alive, in flames," said Shabdir Hussain, from his hospital bed. "We could do nothing. We saved our lives by jumping from the roof."

Successive governments have been unable to provide a reliable power supply so factories have to have their own generators, powered by diesel or petrol, if they want to avoid regular, lengthy power cuts.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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