KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — The death toll from a pair of devastating factory fires that broke out in Pakistan's two biggest cities rose today to 314 people, many of whom perished because they were unable to escape buildings that lacked emergency exits and basic safety equipment such as alarms and sprinklers.
The horrific toll highlights the atrocious state of industrial safety in Pakistan, where many factories are set up illegally in the country's densely populated cities, and owners often pay officials bribes to ignore safety violations.
The more deadly of the two blazes, which both erupted last night, was at a garment factory in the southern city of Karachi, the country's economic heart.
The death toll there rose to 289 people today as firefighters battled the flames for hours, said senior government official Roshan Ali Sheikh. It was one of the worst industrial accidents in Pakistan's 65-year history, and Sheikh said the death toll could rise because rescue workers were still pulling bodies from the site in Karachi.
Most of the deaths were caused by suffocation as people caught in the basement were unable to escape when it filled with smoke, said the top firefighter in Karachi, Ehtisham-ud-Din.
The building only had one accessible exit, and all the other doors were locked, Sheikh said.
"It is a criminal act to lock the emergency exit doors, and we are trying to know who did it, and why?" Sheikh said.
Relatives of the victims said the factory owner locked the exit doors in response to a recent theft, endangering the workers inside.
"The owner of the factory should also be burned to death the way our dear ones have died in a miserable condition," said Nizam-ud-Din, whose nephew died.
Workers on higher floors of the five-story building struggled to make it out of windows that were covered with metal bars. Many were injured when they jumped from the building, including a 27-year-old pregnant woman.
Another injured factory worker, Mohammad Ilyas, speaking from the hospital, said he was working with roughly 50 other men and women on one of the floors when a fireball came from the staircase.
"I jumped from my seat, as did others, and rushed toward 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."
His leg was injured in the fall.
Others weren't so lucky. An Associated Press reporter saw a charred body partially hanging out one of the factory's barred windows.
The factory's managers have fled and are being sought by police, said Sheikh, who is the senior government official in Karachi. He added that authorities have placed the name of the factory's owner on the list of people who are not allowed to leave the country.
Also last night, a fire swept through a four-story shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore, killing 25 people. Some died from burns and others from suffocation, said senior police officer Multan Khan.
The factory was illegally set up in a residential part of the city. The fire 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 blaze.