Karachi. At least 73 people were killed when a blaze engulfed a packed garment factory in Karachi, and dozens of others were hurt as they jumped out of windows to save their lives, officials said on Wednesday.
The evening blaze in the four-story factory in Pakistan’s largest city coincided with another at a shoe plant in Lahore on Tuesday that killed at least 21 people.
“So far we have taken out 73 bodies from the factory and the death toll is likely to rise,” Karachi fire chief Ehtesham Salim told AFP.
“We are now searching in the basement and there are about 35 fire engines taking part in the firefigthing and most of the fire has been extinguished, but there is smouldering in some parts due to plastic and chemicals,” he added.
“This is the biggest fire in terms of deaths in decades,” he added.
In January 2009, 40 people were killed, more than half of them children, when a fire engulfed dozens of wooden homes in Karachi’s impoverished Baldia neighborhood.
Factory workers said that they made plastic utensils and under garments.
The death toll was revised sharply upwards after police earlier said the fire, which erupted late Tuesday, had killed nine workers.
Some shouting and sobbing relatives of trapped workers, desperate to get inside the building, scuffled with police during the night, an AFP photographer said.
Rescuers used arc lights to work through the night. A steady stream of bodies were stretchered out, covered by white sheets.
Abdus Salam, a doctor at Karachi’s Civil Hospital, said 10 women were among the dead garment workers.
“The bodies are badly charred,” Salam told AFP, adding that at least 65 other workers had suffered broken bones after jumping out of windows to escape the fire.
Firefighters on crane lifts reached through the gutted building’s windows to rescue some trapped survivors, who were taken to local hospitals suffering from burns and smoke inhalation.
The blaze was still smouldering early on Wednesday.
Mohammad Saleem, 32, who broke a leg after jumping out of the second floor, said he and his colleagues were hard at work late on Tuesday when flames suddenly reached their section.
“It was terrible, suddenly the entire floor filled with fire and smoke and the heat was so intense that we rushed towards the windows, broke its steel grille and glass and jumped out,” Saleem told AFP in hospital.
“I fell on the ground and it was extremely painful, I saw many people jumping out of windows and crying in pain for help,” he said.
Around 150 employees were working at the time in one of the factory’s three round-the-clock shifts, Saleem said.
Officials said the cause of the Karachi fire was not yet known but Rauf Siddiqi, the industry minister for Sindh province, said the factory owner was under investigation for negligence.
“We have ordered an inquiry into how the fire erupted and why proper emergency exits were not provided at the factory so that the workers could escape,” Siddiqi said.
Earlier Tuesday, the blaze in Pakistan’s second-largest city Lahore trapped dozens of workers in the shoe-making factory, killing 21 and injuring 14 others, local officials and medics said.
Tariq Zaman, a government official in Lahore, said the fire was caused by a faulty electricity generator.
Karamat Ali, a spokesman for the local government’s emergency rescue team, said fire crews succeeded in bringing the blaze under control after several hours and rescue workers had evacuated all those trapped inside the factory.
The garment trade as a whole is vital to Pakistan’s shaky economy.
According to central bank data, the textiles industry contributed to 7.4 percent of Pakistan’s GDP in 2011 and employed 38 percent of the manufacturing sector workforce. It accounted for 55.6 percent of total exports.