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'We were trapped inside': Pakistan factory fires kill at least 261

At least 166 people were killed in a fire in Karachi, Pakistan. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Updated at 8:40 a.m. ET: KARACHI, Pakistan -- At least 261 people burned to death as separate fires swept through two factories in Pakistan, police and government officials said Wednesday, raising questions about industrial safety in the country.

Flames raced through a garment factory in the teeming commercial capital of Karachi, killing 236 people. 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."


 

Rehan Khan / EPA

A man tries to identify body of his relative at a mortuary following a huge fire at a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan, Wednesday.

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

More photos: Blazes at factories in Karachi and Lahore

Critics say Pakistan's corrupt and ineffective government has failed to tackle the country's problems. The country is racked by a Taliban insurgency, widespread poverty, spiraling 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 grills on the windows a lot of people would have been saved. The factory was overflowing with garments and fabrics. Whoever complained was fired."

The Guardian newspaper quoted injured factory worker Mohammad Ilyas, who also said that bars on the windows had stopped workers from escaping easily:

"Some of us quickly took tools and machines to break the iron bars," he said, speaking from a hospital in Karachi, the Guardian reported. "That's how we managed to jump out of the windows down to the ground floor."

"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."

Supplied international firms?
Ali Ahmad, 33, who owns a Karachi firm called Nizam Textiles, which does not own or operate either of the affected factories, said the Karachi factory was owned by two brothers. One was out of the country and the other was missing, he said.

"The word in the industry is that he has gone AWOL, which is, frankly, a natural reaction to the way the cops and media are investigating this," he told NBC News.

Ahmad said the factory likely supplied the international market.

"If these factory owners had international clients, that means they had to worry about social compliance, which is a trip or two per year from the compliance and standards guys and other auditors who report to their foreign buyers," he said. "If the social compliance checks had been failed by the factory owners, and they were still producing for foreign buyers, then this is both a local and an international crime. It's also an ethical problem for international buyers."

He said it was difficult being an entrepreneur in Pakistan.

"You have strikes, load shedding [power outages], local mafias charging you turf protection money -- you name it," Ahmad said. "Plus you have ruthless buyers sitting in the U.S. who don't care what you do, as long as you do it on time ... we take a hit every time we're late. That means lost margins. That means we do what we need to do to make our orders, fast. This factory owner may have been working extra shifts just for that purpose." 

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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 the capital of Sindh.

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

Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images

Pakistani firefighters work to extinguish a sudden fire after it trapped dozens of workers in a factory in Lahore on Tuesday.

At a Karachi hospital, about 30 bodies burned 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."

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

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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 236, said police chief Iqbal Mahmood.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

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.

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The cause of the garment factory fire was not clear.

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."

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Al-Jazeera reported that the factory had been built illegally in a residential part of Lahore.

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.

NBC News’ Waj Khan in Islamabad and Reuters contributed to this report.

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