Team formed to investigate suspicious Pakistan PNSC office fire

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Babar Ghauri, Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping, has told reporters at a press conference that an investigative team has been formed to look into the causes of a suspicious fire two days ago at the Karachi office of the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation (PNSC).

One office worker was killed and four firefighters were injured in the multi-storey blaze. Another man had to be rescued from the roof via helicopter. 31 people were in the office at the time of the fire, including eight PNSC security guards and six other PNSC personnel, the rest working for private companies.

The provincial investigation team's findings are expected to be announced in around fifteen days. In addition, the Karachi Building Control Authority and several private organizations have been asked to inspect the building, and the course of action to be taken regarding the site will be determined after they have submitted their reports. “Even if the current PNSC building is demolished, it will be replaced by another PNSC building. The plot will not be given to anyone else,” Ghauri said.

“I have spoken to the prime minister on the telephone. I told him that the incident should be investigated by independent parties and ministry personnel should not be part of these investigation teams,” Ghauri said. Meanwhile, the Senate Standing Committee on Ports and Shipping confirmed that they will send a team to assist in investigative efforts.

The fire, which consumed floors four to ten, is being treated as suspicious because it is the second the building has suffered this year. The previous fire, which occurred on February 18, was deemed by a multi-national investigation at the time to have been caused by an electrical fault. The minister has, however, promised that the fact both fires occurred on a Sunday will be part of the investigation.

This latest fire has destroyed the records of several private shipping companies, causing Farhatullah Babar of the Pakistan Peoples Party to declare that the fire was a deliberate act to destroy undesirable PNSC documents. However, Ghauri was dismissive of the allegations, saying “Babar merely wants some cheap publicity and leveled allegations at us,” and adding that PNSC records have not been affected by the fire. The records are computerised, and stored on the untouched first floor. The offices destroyed by the fire housed private corporations, such as Mega Shipping Company, Attock Cement, Engro, Meezan Bank and others.

There was already a known security issue in the building, with PNSC Chairman Tanvir Naqvi telling reporters “We were just about to issue tenders for improving security in the building when this happened.”

People described as 'sources in the PNSC' told reporters that the building was constructed by a company based in Turkey for Rs 30 million in 1958. “This building will not be demolished. Damages will be repaired and the building can be made usable,” said one.

One man who worked on the fourth floor of the structure, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to represent the PNSC, told the Daily Times newspaper that “The fire initially did not break out on the fourth floor," as originally reported, saying instead “At around 2:00 p.m. we saw smoke coming through our lighting fixtures. Within 36 seconds the smoke was so thick that we could not recognize people standing right in front of us. There is no air exhaust system on the emergency exits. If we had not evacuated immediately, we would have suffocated and died on the emergency exits.”

He goes on to claim that of a number of PNSC employees present, not one knew how to operate the fire extinguishers supplied. They started panicking. I broke the glass and used the hose to try to put the fire out. But the smoke was too thick. We were in contact with Adeel (the worker on the roof of the building).”

“The fire started in the ducts of the building. The pillars had already been damaged by the February blaze. This time around, the fire was more intense.”

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