LAHORE, Pakistan: Pakistani rescuers have pulled 99 people out alive from the rubble of a collapsed factory and are searching for an unknown number of others believed still trapped in a disaster that has killed at least 18, officials said Thursday.
Soldiers and rescuers in Lahore were carefully cutting through steel and using cranes to lift the debris of the building which came crashing down Wednesday night, less than two weeks after a 7.5 magnitude earthquake rocked the region.
One worker still trapped in the rubble told SAMAA TV early Thursday that he is pinned under a girder, but alive and feeling thirsty.
It was unclear how many people were in the building when it collapsed or how many — dead or alive — may still be trapped. Officials have put the total number of those involved at around 150-200.
Rescue services spokesman Jam Sajjad Hussain said 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.
“Rescue work is ongoing and I fear that the death toll may increase,” he said.
Factory employee Mohammad Navid told AFP Thursday that dozens of 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.
“The building caved in with a big bang and I fell unconscious on the ground,” said the 22-year-old Navid, who had been employed at the factory for a year.
He said he regained consciousness after some 15 minutes. “I heard people screaming and shouting for help.”
Mohammad Usman, the top administration official in Lahore who is coordinating the response to the disaster, said Thursday that 99 people had been rescued and that they expected to find a “couple” more survivors.
“Just 30 minutes ago we pulled another guy out alive,” he told AFP.
The collapse occurred at the four-story Rajput Polyester polythene bag factory in the Sundar industrial estate, around 45 kilometers southwest of Lahore’s city center.
The factory may have suffered structural damage in the October 26 quake that 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 laborers the owner continued to build an extension,” he told reporters.
“Some of the pillars of the building had been weakened in the earthquake,” Navid told AFP, adding that workers had informed the owner of the problems.
Most of the survivors were injured and chief doctor Zia Ullah at Jinnah Hospital, where some were taken, said the majority of the victims were young workers, with many suffering head injuries and fractured limbs.
SAMAA TV also broadcast images of a bruised worker being pulled from the rubble who said he was 12 years old.
Rescue spokesman Hussain said Wednesday that all the city rescue workers were on site “but it is such a big incident that we have called rescue workers from other nearby districts.”
The army said it was deploying specialist search teams and engineers to help the rescue effort.
Three cranes, a bulldozer and more than 40 emergency rescue vehicles were working at the site, a rescue official said Wednesday.
But provincial spokesman Zaeem Qadri told reporters that progress was slow because the factory was at the end of a narrow lane, making it difficult for excavators to reach the site.