A massive fire in Hafeez Centre, the city’s major multi-story market housing mobile phones, laptops, and computer business, gutted more than 400 shops, godowns, and repair facilities on Sunday, inflicting heavy losses on traders.
It is said to be the fifth major fire reported in the Gulberg area of Lahore over the last two years or so.
Erupting in the morning, the fire kept rising till the evening, sending thick clouds of smoke in the area and making breathing difficult.
Intermittent blasts from hundreds of split AC compressors added to the panic in the area, with people coming out of their houses and flats fearing some armed attacks.
There were conflicting reports about the cause of the fire and the exact time when it started. Some witnesses claimed it erupted late in the night while others said it erupted at around 5 am.
A majority of the shopkeepers who were in their homes due to Sunday rushed to the area after getting phone calls.
Most of them could not remove their merchandise like cell phones, laptops, computers, LCDs, CCTV cameras, and other accessories and suffered huge losses.
Traders’ leaders claimed that more than 400 shops, godowns, small shops, and offices had been burnt in the 11-hour fire which started from the second floor of the building.
Moving scenes were witnessed when owners helplessly watched their shops reducing to ashes. Desperate, some small shopkeepers put their lives at risk and entered the building on flames to secure their goods. Some succeeded while others returned empty-handed.
Some traders claimed the rescuers threw water on floors which were not on fire and damaged their goods.
“I called Rescue 1122 at 6.09 am on seeing dense smoke emitting from a shop at the second floor,” said Raju, who ran a mobile phone counter at Hafeez Centre. He said he alerted the security guards of the plaza and tried to put out the fire using tab water.
Raju alleged that as the fire spread he called Rescue 1122 but they took an hour to reach there. He said that only one special vehicle of Rescue 1122 arrived at around 7.15 am, but it was insufficient and too late because the fire had engulfed more than four shops at that time.
Union leaders of Hafeez Centre also accused Rescue 1122 of initiating operation too late with insufficient resources.
Sheikh Fayyaz, the president of the Hafeez Centre union, said: “Fire spread from the second floor to the upper stories and engulfed the entire three top floors despite the presence of dozens of special vehicles of the emergency service and several firefighters.”
Union’s information secretary Jafar Shah said the plaza housed around 815 big shops, godowns, and 700 counters. He said the fire-fighting vehicles of other city district governments, Pakistan Navy and Bahria Town also reached the site to join the rescue operation.
Lahore Capital City Police Officer Umar Sheikh said 25 people trapped in the building were rescued safely.
Punjab Health Minister Dr. Yasmin Rashid faced an embarrassing situation when she reached there only to face criticism from Hafeez Centre traders. “You are not required here. Go back and do your original (health) duty,” shouted a trader.
Rescue 1122 DG Dr. Rizwan claimed his teams responded to the emergency call in time. Rejecting traders’ claim, he rather blamed them for not investing on emergency firefighting equipment necessary for multi-story buildings.
Talking to the media, he said smoke detecting alarms and water hydrants installed in the building were dysfunctional. He said the fire completely damaged the third, fourth, and fifth floors housing too many shops of inflammable paint material, laptops, CCTV cameras, and other electronics.
Dr. Rizwan said the Rescue 1122 squad managed to contain the fire in other floors, including the basement.
A press release issued by Rescue 1122 at 7 pm claimed that the ‘active fire’ had been put out while the process of controlling the small scale blaze in some portions of Hafeez Centre was on. No one was injured in the massive fire which lasted more than 11 hours, it said.
On the other hand, fire in some pockets of the plaza was still visible at 9.30 pm.