Lahore (Pakistan) – Hopes of finding more survivors in the rubble of a collapsed Pakistani factory were fading as darkness fell Thursday, with rescuers warning the death toll would likely rise as they dig further down through the debris.
Soldiers and rescuers in Lahore have pulled 108 people out of the rubble of the four-storey factory in Lahore alive, with at least 20 people confirmed dead, officials said, carefully cutting through steel and using cranes and heavy machinery to lift the debris.
“Almost 24 hours have passed and there are less chances of life now,” Arshad Zia, head of rescue services in Punjab province, told AFP Thursday evening.
Rescuers have only removed rubble from the top two floors, he said, adding that more workers were believed to have been on the bottom floors at the time of the collapse.
He had not given up hope, however. “Miracles can happen at any time and that’s why we are moving slowly.”
It was unclear how many people were in the building when it collapsed or how many — dead or alive — may still be trapped.
Rescue services spokesman Jam Sajjad Hussain said earlier Thursday it was “difficult” to give a specific number, but said workers had told officials that around 200 people had been inside at the time of the collapse, including the owner, though that was unconfirmed.
Officials fear that dozens more bodies may be found on the lower floors.
Factory employee Mohammad Navid told AFP Thursday that up to 50 shift workers may have been sleeping in a part of the building that rescuers had not yet reached, and that children as young as 12 had been working in the factory.
A list of the injured from one of the three hospitals the wounded were shifted to, however, showed three 15-year-olds as the youngest patients listed.
Another employee, 18-year-old Mohammad Irfan, told AFP from his hospital bed that the workers were “mostly” aged between 14 and 25.
The collapse occurred at the Rajput Polyester polythene bag factory in the Sundar industrial estate, around 45 kilometres (30 miles) southwest of Lahore’s city centre.
– Earthquake damage? –
The factory may have suffered structural damage in the October 26 quake which killed almost 400 people across Pakistan and Afghanistan, Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif said.
“I have heard about the earthquake affecting the building, but according to labourers the owner continued to build an extension,” he told reporters.
“Some of the pillars of the building had been weakened in the earthquake,” 22-year-old Navid told AFP, adding that workers had informed the owner of the problems.
“The building caved in with a big bang and I fell unconscious on the ground,” he said, adding that he had regained consciousness after some 15 minutes.
“I heard people screaming and shouting for help.”
Pakistan has a poor safety record in the construction and maintenance of buildings.
At least 24 people died last year when a mosque collapsed in the same city, while more than 200 people lost their lives, mostly due to collapsed roofs, following torrential rain and flooding in 2014.
In 2012, at least 255 workers were killed when a fire tore through a clothing factory in Karachi, one of the deadliest industrial accidents in Pakistani history.
Child labour is also commonplace across the country, with the US Department of Labor estimating some 13 percent of all 10-14 year olds (2.5 million) were engaged in work in 2014, despite education being mandatory by law.
The federal minimum age for hazardous work is 14, well below international norms, though even that law is widely ignored.