LAHORE - A three-storey factory in Hassan Town, on the Multan Road, collapsed on Monday after a gas explosion, killing at least 12 people, including women and children. Dozens more were trapped, emergency officials said.

Rescue-1122 spokesman Muhammad Farooq said eight of those killed were identified as Salma, Fozia, Nasreen, Ambrin, Maryum, Asif, Tanveer, and Shahid. A hectic search for those trapped in the debris was continuing till this writing, he said. Most of the trapped labourers were males aged 14-23.

The 12 dead included a 10-year-old boy. Seventeen women and girls were also in the factory, which produced veterinary medical products, when it crumbled. The death toll was expected to rise. The factory was operating illegally, the City District Government officials said.

“I was inside the building when the blast happened,” said Asad, an eight-year-old who was a labourer in the factory. “Two other boys were with me and they started running. I don’t know where they went and if they are alive.” One of the injured, Nazia Bibi, told TheNation at Jinnah Hospital’s emergency ward that most the employees were children and women. “The employees (mostly women and children) get just Rs4000 per month as salary. Our job was packaging of the medicines,” she said.

The senior-most city official, DCO Ahad Cheema, also told reporters that the factory should not have been operating. “The factory was supposed to be sealed. We will investigate why it was still running.“ It was not clear why it had been ordered sealed.

“The factory has completely collapsed and two houses next to it as well,” an emergency official at the site told this scribe. The narrow streets were preventing heavy rescue machinery from reaching the area, he added.

Emergency workers and residents were shifting rubble by hand as authorities struggled to move a large crane to the site. “We are looking for voids in the destruction where there are likely to be survivors,” Rizwan Naseer, head of Rescue 1122, told reporters at the site.

“My house is near the factory. I felt a strong jolt and my house shook. I thought it was a bombing,” said Awais Raza. Pakistan’s government is often described by opponents as too corrupt and inept to tackle an array of problems.

Rescue workers said that two nearby houses also completely collapsed after the blast. At the blast site, ambulances were seen racing towards the hospitals to shift the injured for immediate medical treatment while sounds of emergency sirens continued striking the residents in the entire locality till late night.

On Monday evening, a rescue worker said that around 17 girls and 45 boys were still trapped under the building. A spokesman of Punjab Emergency Service (Rescue-1122) said the rescue operation was launched from three sides of the building.

Rescue workers told reporters at the site of the blast that they were also in touch with a few people, trapped under the debris, by phone. According to local residents, they heard a huge explosion at around 8:30 am, followed by hue and cry everywhere in the locality.

“I thought the factory had been bombed. It was a powerful blast. As I came out of my house in panic and I saw people running towards the site,” said Muhammad Awais, a college student, who resides a few hundred meters away from the factory.

The locals said that more than 100 employees work at the veterinary medicine manufacturing factory round-the-clock in three shifts. Government official said that the factory, called Orient Lab (Pvt) Limited, was owned by four brothers including Shiekh Zubair and Sheikh Zaheer, and it was operating in the area since 1981.

Officials said that the building was constructed in sheer violation of the building bylaws. They said that the factory had been sealed twice in the past but the owners managed to get it reopened after using their political connections or paying minor fine.  “Initial investigations suggested that more than 100 workers were present in the factory when it caved in with a bang,” SSP (Operations) Mr Sarfraz told reporters. Heavy police contingents were deployed around the site in order to keep the bystanders at distance and to ensure uninterrupted rescue operation.  Rana Muhammad Amjad, whose house also collapsed partially in the incident, told reporters that the factory was operating illegally. He said that the building was sealed four years ago on court orders for illegal construction, but was later reopened.

Meanwhile, the Sabzazar police have registered a case against the owners of the factory with no arrest made so far. SP Sadar Shoaib Khurram told this reporter that raids are underway to nab the owners of the factory.

An official confirmed that the factory had been sealed twice by the Lahore Development Authority because it was built in violation of the building bylaws. According to factory workers, no less than 60 people were at work when the building collapsed. Several workers were arriving at the factory when the blast occurred on Monday morning. It was not clear exactly how many children were in the building but rescue workers confirmed that some were still trapped in the debris.

Eyewitnesses said that the rescuers were facing problems while transporting heavy machinery to the area to clear the debris because of narrow streets in the congested residential area.