LAHORE: Rescuers were still searching for survivors several hours after a four-storey factory collapsed yesterday evening in Sundar Industrial Estate resulting in death of 22 people and scores trapped. A senior official said more than 150 labourers were at work inside Rajput Plastic Industries on Raiwind Road, near Jati Umrah, when the building collapsed.

The death toll from the shopping-bags-manufacturing unit may rise as many were still trapped in the basement. “A good number of workers were busy inside the basement when the building collapsed,” an official of the Punjab Industries Department told reporters at the site. He said the entire structure came down when its pillars crashed. At least 18 bodies and 50 injured were shifted to Jinnah Hospital. Another 35 injured were admitted to Sharif Medical Complex where two of them expired while 15 were critical. Some children, as young as 10, are said to be among the victims.

According to officials, the army is leading the rescue operation and the civil administration is helping troops in shifting victims to ambulances. An army team retrieved 25 workers alive six hours after the collapse. “They are safe and well,” an official said late yesterday night. Considerable delay in the rescue operation placed a question on the Punjab government’s capacity to deal with such disasters. “So far, at least 20 bodies have been pulled out, and more than 85 injured have been shifted to hospitals,” said a spokesperson for the Edhi Foundation.

It was not yet clear what caused the entire building to collapse. Rescuers were informed by a local resident at around 5:20pm. Reportedly, cracks had developed in the building after the recent 7.5-magnitude earthquake last month. “The (factory) management ignoring cracks continued construction work on the top floor,” a rescue official quoted one of the injured as saying. “As the rooftop collapsed the entire building was razed to the ground within seconds,” he added.

An eyewitness told The Nation that he saw only four to five men running out of the building as it caved in with a bang. “All those, who were inside the building, had no chance to flee,” says Muhammad Akram, a fruit-vendor who was present outside the factory at the time of the tragedy. The factory owner, identified as Rana Muhammad Ashraf, is also among the dead. A Punjab government official said an inquiry was ordered by the chief minister to investigate the incident. Public hospitals were put on high-alert to tackle emergencies as rescuers were searching for survivors. Rescue workers were seen using heavy machinery to remove the debris from the scene.

A worker who was still trapped underneath the wreckage contacted Waqt News through his mobile phone late yesterday night. Identifying himself as Ramazan he asked for help. “It’s completely dark in here, please help me. Are they doing something to get me out,” he asked. Over 300 people including army personnel, district administration officials, and volunteers were taking part in the operation that was ongoing till filing of this report. “One hundred volunteers and 50 ambulances are there to shift the victims to hospitals. It a big tragedy,” Edhi Foundation spokesman Younis Bhatti said. Several Rescue-1122 workers and ambulances rushed to the spot soon after the happening. The wailing sirens of ambulances triggered panic in the locality as victims were ferried to hospitals. The Punjab government announced a compensation of Rs500,000 for the family of each victim.