Toll rises to 283 in Pakistan factory fires

KARACHI, Pakistan -- Fires swept through two clothing factories, leaving 283 people dead, many trapped behind locked doors and barred windows, highlighting the atrocious working conditions in a country where workplaces often lack basic safety equipment and owners bribe officials to ignore the violations.

The twin blazes broke out Tuesday night at a garment factory in the southern port city of Karachi and a shoe manufacturer in the eastern city of Lahore. At least 258 people died in the fire in Karachi, where rescuers were still searching yesterday for bodies in the charred building. Another 25 perished in Lahore.

The panicked workers in Karachi had only one way out; the factory's owner had locked all the other exit doors in response to a recent theft, officials said. Many suffocated in the smoke-filled basement.

"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 was killed in the fire, one of the deadliest industrial accidents in Pakistani history.

Police were searching for the factory's managers and placed the owner on a list of people who are not allowed to leave the country, said Roshan Ali Sheikh, a top government official in Karachi.

"It is a criminal act to lock the emergency exit doors, and we are trying to know who did it, and why," Sheikh said.

The fire started when a boiler exploded and the flames ignited chemicals stored in the factory, which made jeans and other clothes for export. Between 300 and 400 workers were inside when the blaze erupted.

Many people suffocated, trapped in the basement and unable to escape when it filled with smoke, said Karachi fire chief Ehtisham-ud-Din.

Those on the upper floors of the five-story building had to break through metal bars covering the windows to leap to safety. Dozens were injured doing so, including a 27-year-old pregnant woman.

"When smoke spread all around, I jumped out the window in panic," said Mohammad Shahzad, whose arm and leg were broken when he hit the ground. "I found myself in the hospital when I regained my senses."

Others burned to death as they tried to wriggle through the barred windows.

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