ISLAMABAD // Deadly fires swept through two factories in Pakistan's two biggest cities yesterday, killing more than 300 people in the country's worst industrial accident.
At least 289 people were killed in a clothing factory in Karachi. Another 25 people were killed in a blaze in a shoe factory in Lahore, country's second biggest city.
Roshan Ali Sheikh, Karachi's city commissioner, said the death toll could rise as many workers were still believed to be still trapped in the basement of the factory. Authorities were investigating the cause of the fires, but the high death toll was blamed on a lack of emergency exits and basic safety facilities.
Shujauddin Qureshi, a researcher at the Pakistan Institute of Labour, Education and Research in (PILER) Karachi, said there was only one way out of the sprawling factory.
"It was impossible for all workers to get out of the factory from just one gate which resulted in the huge death toll," he said. "It is the biggest industrial incident in the country."
All the other doors were in the factory were locked, Mr Sheikh said.
"It is a criminal act to lock the emergency exit doors, and we are trying to know who did it, and why?" Mr Sheikh said.
Relatives of the victims said the factory owner locked the exit doors in response to a recent theft, thereby endangering the workers inside.
"The owner of the factory should also be burnt to death the way our dear ones have died in a miserable condition," said Nizam-ud-Din, whose nephew died in the fire.
Mr Qureshi said labour laws required the provincial labour department to carry out safety inspections in the industrial units but the practice had been suspended in Sindh province, where Karachi is located, as well as in Punjab province, where Lahore is situated. There have not been routine inspections since 1997 after top industrialists complained inspectors were demanding bribes.
"[The] State's criminal negligence with regards to enforcement of labour inspection system, building control laws and industrial regulation provisions are responsible for the unfortunate incidents," PILER said.
The fire broke out in Karachi around 6pm on Tuesday and was extinguished yesterday morning. About 1,000 workers were reported to be in the factory when the fire broke out.
"People were desperately breaking iron bars on windows, doors and walls to escape," Aslam Khan, a worker who managed to flee by jumping off the four-storey factory in Karachi told Dunya television network. "I saw many people charred but could not help them."
"There was a huge explosion and then there was fire all around," Mr Khan said.
Mobile phone footage shows workers jumping out of the factory's windows. Some were shown using ladders.
Scores of workers were stood on the rooftop, waving their hands for help.
"I jumped from the third storey and have got my leg fractured," one of the workers lying on a stretcher in a hospital told a television network.
As the flames raged and huge clouds of smoke billowed out of the factory, relatives were desperately looked for their loved ones.
"My brother, sister-in-law and their son, all three, were working in this factory," a sobbing woman told Geo television outside the factory. "They came from Hyderabad [in Pakistan] for work. We did not know they were going to die."
Another man said his son worked in the factory during the summer holiday.
"He stopped working after his school opened. He came here to collect his pay but he is dead now," the man said in a choked voice.
Mr Sheikh said police were searching for the owner of the factory, who is believed to be in hiding.
Firefighting officials said most of the deaths were caused by suffocation as people caught in the basement were unable to escape.
In Lahore, at least 25 people were killed when flames trapped dozens of workers in a shoemaking factory. Officials blamed A faulty generator for starting the fire.
Asif Ali Zardari, the president, expressed grave concern over the death toll in the Karachi factory and ordered regional authorities to submit report on the incidents to him.
The tragedy comes as Pakistan's textile industry appears to be booming. Pakistan may export a record Dh51 billion of textiles overseas in the year ending June 2013 as cotton production increases and new rules improve access to European markets, Mohsin Aziz, chairman of the All-Pakistan Textile Mills Association told Bloomberg.