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Fires are the perfect crime—they destroy their own evidence. This is the trouble investigators are facing in Karachi where a massive blaze in Co-operative Market off Abdullah Haroon Road gutted out just the ground floor but suspiciously not the basement and top six floors on November 14.

“Market ke andar VIP sholay they,
bhai,” is how one firefighter described it. They were VIP flames. “It was
the worst one I’ve seen in my 21-year career.”

The fire was reported at 5:44pm
by Saddar fireman Zohaib Hussain who was actually off duty because it was a
Sunday but he was in the neighbourhood shopping with his family in Zainab
Market down the road. The tenders took ten minutes to get to the
market which is located opposite the Saddar GPO. According to Saddar fire
station head Zaheer Siddiqui, it was declared a third-degree fire in just six minutes.

The flames leapt at the entrance and exit gates preventing firefighters from even entering. Much of the stock is cloth as the market sells menswear, from mul mul kurtas to sherwanis.

Natural or artificial fire

Winters are deadline Karachi for shopping malls and markets, not just because of the dry weather but because their overloaded electrical circuitry that defies building codes and are never really checked. Usually a short-circuiting will cause a fire but the firefighters are not sold on that being the case this time.

“We don’t have any mechanism to ascertain the cause of such a huge
fire,” Zaheer Siddiqui said. “The fire brigade department could not state short
circuit was the reason in the Cooperative market fire, as it was so big.” If
they document it as a short circuit, they have to prove it. And there simply is
not evidence that was the case here.

All Zaheer Siddiqui was able to speculate was that something was used to speed it up. But here too is a problem. “White phosphorus is a chemical commonly used in arson, as it catches fire immediately and does not leave any evidence.”

Nobody was allowed to enter the market after the fire and it was only on November 19 that shop owners were allowed in.

The police allowed the basement shop owners to go back to business
even though the investigation is not over.

Two groups fighting

The case is being investigated by IO Abdul Razzaq, who told SAMAA Digital that the CCTV recording or DVR, shop shutters and sand have been sent to Lahore for a forensic investigation.

Meanwhile, there is anger and
speculation. “The builder set fire to our shops,” said president of the Saddar
Cooperative Market Muhammad Feroze. “How can it be that there is a fire and it
only touched our shops and the builder’s floors remained untouched?”
According to them, six hundred shops were gutted on the ground and first
floors. These are the floors controlled by the market association.
The market is generally closed on Sundays. That Sunday, the gates were opened
at Asr prayers in the afternoon. That’s when the fire happened.

“All five gates were ablaze at the
same time,” Feroze added.

A duct from the ground to first floor made it possible for the fire
to spread.

Fortunately, the CCTV DVR was
saved and has been sent for a forensic investigation to Lahore. “We
kept a copy of the DVR recording,” said Feroze. They don’t trust anyone. The police
investigators took the DVR on November 22.

The allegations stem from a
conflict between two parties at Cooperative market: the shop owners and a builder
who wanted to expand.

The shop owners have been
running their businesses on the ground and first floor for sixty years. In
1993, a builder acquired a contract from the Sindh Cooperative department to
construct more floors and shops. An agreement was signed between the
Sindh Cooperative department and M/s Saddar Market Development Consortium,
which is a joint venture of M/s Prefab System (Pvt) Limited and Al-Zia
Associates, Pakistan.

According to the agreement, the consortium would make its money by
renovating, re-developing and modernising the old market, which originally consisted
of a basement, ground and first floor. The consortium could add on six floors
and then book and sell shops and offices made there.
The old shop owners resisted this change by going to court and getting a stay
order. The consortium’s manager Tauqeer Ahmed said they managed to get some
work done from 1997 to 1999. “Now the floors are ready and the shops have been
booked.”

The market association of shop owners wanted the consortium to not
only give them extra shops but also give them ownership rights. “We can do this
according to the agreement,” explained Ahmed. The deal says that if no one
comes forward to book newly created shop spaces in the upper floors or rent out
the shops as tenants in six months, the consortium will be free to sell the
shop units permanently for which a separate clause for maintenance charges
shall be payable by the purchaser to the society.

“The market association was squabbling amongst itself,” he said. “But
after this fire, they’ve united.”
“All our floors were spared in the fire because the fire was controlled before
it reached the second floor,” he said.

Arson experts on how it’s done

If you want to study arson, the best people to ask are not the forensics
academics who study it after the crime has been committed, but the people who
set the fire in the first place. SAMAA Digital talked to Guddu, a political
worker who was once involved in several Karachi arson cases and was recently acquitted.

“Once we set a market near Peetal
gali in Golimar on fire,” he said. “We adopted a procedure in which
a team entered the market at night and sharpened the electric wires. After
that, another team sprinkled petrol at the market’s gates and left the scene.”
The final touch came from a third team that chucked taal or kindling at
specific spots. “In our time, CCTV cameras were not common,” he said. “So it
was easy for us to execute our plans.”

Prof Dr Muhammad Masood Rafi,
NEDUET chairman of the Department of Earthquake Engineering, says controlled
arson depends on expertise and the quantity and quality of the fuel. “In
controlled arson the fuel burns and nothing else.”

The president of the Fire
Protection Industry of Pakistan Muhammad Imran Taj said that investigators
would have to study movement in the market on Sunday. “The presence of any
individual or any activity on Sunday could make controlled arson a possibility,”
he said. And he added that no matter what, a fire will leave
evidence. You just have to know where to look. “It can be obtained from the
roof of a damaged building,” he said. “The
evidence is always deposited on the roof of a fire-affected building.”

Abdul Gh Lone

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