KARACHI / GADANI, Nov 2: At least 16 people were killed and dozens wounded on Tuesday when a huge blast ripped through an oil tanker being broken up for scrap in the Gadani shipbreaking yard, some 45 kilometres west of Karachi.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the deadly fire, though some reports suggested it was ignited by a gas cylinder blast inside the 22,000-ton oil tanker.
Officials said the ship was still ablaze as there was not enough equipment to extinguish it. And witnesses say more than 100 workers were on board the vessel when the blast occurred, triggering fears that the death toll might go up.
“The massive vessel was moored at Plot No 56 and workers were cleaning it when a massive explosion occurred around 9:40am,” Nasir Mansoor, the deputy general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation, told The Express Tribune.
The blast occurred in the fuel tank of the ship, he said. Firefighters from Karachi and from the air force and navy were attempting to put out the blaze, Mansoor said. He added that the firefighters would have to wait for the fire to die out “as they lack the foam required to douse it”. Television footage showed a thick plume of black smoke rising from the ship as rescuers rushed to the scene. Edhi Foundation volunteers confirmed 16 deaths, saying that they have ferried 45 injured workers to different hospitals of Karachi for treatment.
“The explosion shook the whole yard. Initially, we thought a bomb has been dropped in the area,” Bashir Mehmoodani, the president of the Shipbreaking Mazdoor Union, told The Express Tribune. “The explosion sent heavy pieces of metal flying up to 300 meters away.”
Mehmoodani said things were really bad. “An unclear number of workers are said to be trapped in the burning ship,” he added. The rescue operation started within half an hour of the blast as the first Edhi ambulance from Hub Chowki reached the site, said worker Saleem Baloch, who took part in the operation. “At least 100 ambulances were on the spot within an hour,” he added.
There were conflicting reports about what triggered the blaze. Balochistan Home Secretary Akbar Harifal said it was caused by a gas cylinder explosion, but police believe it was ignited when one of the workers on the ship lit up a fire oblivious of the fact that the oil tanker was full of combustible fumes.
Local police official Rehmatullah said it was too early to say what had ignited the fire. “We will register a case against the owners of the shipbreaking yard for alleged negligence,” he told The Express Tribune.
Labourers in Gadani often work in poor conditions without basic protective gear. Two days back, they staged a protest outside the Karachi Press Club against alleged exploitation by employers in connivance with the labour department and police.
Fida Ahmed, the deputy director labour department in Hub, dismissed the allegation, saying that all workers were registered for social security and other facilities. “The labour department is also investigating the deadly blaze and a report will be available by Wednesday (today).”
The Gadani shipbreaking industry has fallen on hard times recently and employs about 9,000 workers, fewer than in its boom years at the end of the last decade.
The casualties from Gadani were driven to the Civil Hospital Hub where medics referred those with life-threatening burn injuries to health facilities in Karachi. “We received 26 injured, but one of them, 26-year-old Asghar, succumbed to his injuries,” said Dr Abdul Qadir Siddiqui of the Civil Hospital Karachi. .
He added that six of the injured were treated for their minor injuries and discharged subsequently. “Five of the injured are in a critical condition because their prognosis is not satisfactory, though doctors are trying their best to save their lives,” he added.
Workers call strike
The Gadani shipbreaking yard workers called a three-day strike in protest against the deadly conflagration. In the afternoon, workers staged a rally, demanding that those responsible for the deaths of their fellows be punished. They alleged that owners of the shipbreaking yard were risking the lives of workers by making them work in hazardous conditions. The chairman of the Shipbreaking Association was not available to respond to the allegations.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed his ‘deep grief and sorrow’ over the incident, according to a statement by his office. Industrial accidents are common in Pakistan, with workplaces often forgoing basic safety measures and equipment in the absence of legislation to protect labourers.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2016.