- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — The death toll from a pair of devastating factory fires that broke out in Pakistan’s two biggest cities rose on Wednesday to 283 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 Tuesday night, was at a garment factory in the southern city of Karachi, the country’s economic heart.

The death toll there rose to 258 people Wednesday as firefighters battled the flames for hours, said senior government official Roshan Ali Sheikh. He said earlier that 289 people died, but this figure double-counted some of the deaths.

The fire was one of the worst industrial accidents in Pakistan’s 65-year history, and Mr. Sheikh said the death toll could rise because rescue workers still were pulling bodies out 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 had only one accessible exit, and all the other doors 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 burned to death the way our dear ones have died in a miserable condition,” said Nizam-ud-Din, whose nephew died in the fire.

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 who was hurt in the fall.

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 suddenly 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. It appeared the victim tried to escape but couldn’t make it through the bars.

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