Pakistan has registered murder charges against factory owners and government officials in Karachi over the deaths of 289 people in the country’s worst industrial disaster, police has said.
The government on Thursday ordered an inquiry, and a senior official told the AFP news agency that the two brothers who owned the factory have been barred from leaving the country.
“We have registered a murder case against the owners of the factory and several government officials for showing utter negligence to provide adequate security to the factory workers,” said Mohammad Nawaz Gondal, the head of the local police station.
Senior Karachi police officer Naeem Akram confirmed the move.
The case has been filed against Abdul Aziz, Mohammad Arshad and Shahid Bhaila and other members of the management of Ali Enterprises, Gondal said.
Police are hunting for the factory owners, who have not been seen since the blaze.
The government of Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, has appointed a retired judge to lead an investigation into the fire, with initial findings expected in a week.
The probe will look into the cause of the fire, protection systems available inside the building and the extent of negligence on the owners’ part, a government statement said.
Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city with a population of 18 million, shut down in mourning on Thursday for the deaths.
Workers were suffocated or burnt alive at the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Karachi, which made ready-to-wear clothing for Western export, when a massive fire tore through the building during the evening shift on Tuesday.
Up to 600 people were working inside at the time, in a building that officials said was in poor condition without emergency exits, forcing dozens to jump from upper storeys to escape the flames, but trapping dozens in the basement where they perished.
At least 25 others were killed in another blaze in a shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore on the same day.
Such safety issues are common throughout Pakistan, where buildings also lack emergency equipment like alarms and sprinklers and municipal rules are rarely enforced.
Workers on higher floors of the five-storey building struggled to make it out of windows that were covered with metal bars.
Mohammad Ilyas, a factory worker who was injured as he jumped out of the building, said he was working with roughly 50 other men and women on one of the floors when suddenly a fireball came from the staircase.
“I jumped from my seat, as did others, and rushed towards the windows, but iron bars on the windows barred us from escaping. Some of us quickly took tools and machines to break the iron bars,” he said. “That was how we managed to jump out of the windows down to the ground floor.”
Funerals had begun on Wednesday for the small group of bodies who had been identified and returned to their families, although the majority of the dead are yet to be identified by the authorities.
“The owners were more concerned with safeguarding the garments in the factory than the workers,” said employee Mohammad Pervez, holding up a photograph of his cousin, who was missing after the fire.
In Lahore, the fire swept through a four-storey shoe factory and killed 25 people, some from burns and some from suffocation, said senior police officer Multan Khan. The factory was illegally set up in a residential part of the city.
The blaze broke out when people in the building were trying to start their generator after the electricity went out. Sparks from the generator made contact with chemicals used to make the shoes, igniting the fire. Pakistan faces widespread blackouts, and many people use generators to provide electricity for their houses or to run businesses.
Firefighters broke holes in the factory’s brick walls to reach victims inside. At the morgue, bodies were lined up on a hallway floor, covered with white sheets.
Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, Pakistani prime minister, in a statement expressed his shock and grief over the deaths in both cities.