Over 300 people were killed when fires engulfed two factories in two major cities, renewing concerns about lax building safety measures and dismal working conditions for factory workers in Pakistan.
The fires broke out Tuesday evening and swept through a shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore and a garment factory in the southern port city of Karachi.
The fire in Karachi killed at least 289 people, according to government officials and rescue workers, who were still trying to retrieve bodies from the charred building on Wednesday.
“The death toll is expected to rise,” said Roshan Ali Sheikh, the commissioner of Karachi. “The building has developed cracks and can collapse any time.” Dozens of bodies were still believed to be trapped in the building, local media reported.
About 1,500 people worked in the factory on the outskirts of Karachi, the commercial and economic hub of the country.
Officials said panicked workers were trapped inside the multistory building, which had just one exit. All the other doors had been locked, a common practice to ensure that workers do not leave the premises before their shift ends.
The windows of the building were also blocked by metal grills. Many survivors suffered third-degree burns, rescue workers said.
“Workers, who were in the basement, died due to suffocation. All exit ways were closed,” Ehtisham-ud-din, the chief fire officer of Karachi, told reporters.
Officials said that the Tuesday evening fire at a Lahore shoe factory killed 25 people and that forensic examination showed that the fire was caused by a generator that caught fire and ignited chemicals stored nearby.
Muhammad Amjad, a witness who works at a nearby factory, said the fire suddenly erupted from the generator that was at the entrance of the building. “The door caught fire, and there was no way to come out,” he said. “It was just like an inferno all of sudden,” Mr. Amjad said. “Many people from the neighborhood tried to break the back wall of the building to help those trapped inside to get out.”
Most of the dead were believed to be young workers, men and women, between 18 and 25 years old.
Officials said the shoe factory was set up illegally and made to look like a residential house from the outside.
Omar R. Quraishi, the opinion page editor of the English daily The Express Tribune, based in Karachi, said he expected more accidents because governments and civic bodies had repeatedly failed to enforce building laws and maintenance checks.
“The startling lack of safety is quite a norm,” Mr. Quraishi said. “Builder mafias have taken over, and government officials have proved lacking in keeping a vigilant eye on illegalities and violations of all sorts.”