LAHORE  - As many as 13 people, including a woman, were burnt alive when a three-storey commercial building in New Anarkali was engulfed by fire on Monday evening. Most of the dead are said to be shopkeepers and salesmen.

Eyewitnesses said the fire erupted in Al-Karim Watch Market near Lohari Chowk because of short-circuiting at 5:30pm. The building has only one gate which is used for entry and exit. “The blaze broke out right at the gate after sparking in the jumbles of electric wires. Within a few seconds, the whole front of the building was on fire,” said a salesman, Hafiz Touseef.

When the fire spread, those inside the plaza were entrapped. The walls of a neighbouring plaza were demolished to have access to the burning watch market to rescue those entrapped inside. Mayo Hospital officials said that at least nine dead bodies were brought to the emergency unit while four were shifted to the morgue from the tragedy site, a police officer said.

A shopkeeper said the cells used in wristwatches catch fire easily and it is because of it that the fire spread to all the three storeys within no time.

“I saw people fleeing the fire in panic. The rescuers pulled out a charred body which was beyond recognition,” said Bilal, a salesman at a nearby shop.

The firefighters faced difficulties in reaching the spot because of the massive encroachments in the main bazaar, which is a common practice in the congested areas.

“Nobody is interested in removing encroachments. There is no parking plaza in this downtown. The government must launch an operation to clear the area,” local trader Muhammad Fahad told this reporter.

The firefighters managed to put out the blaze after one hour while the relevant authorities are making estimates about the losses. “Goods and valuables worth Rs one billion were reduced to ashes. It was terrible as all happened just in minutes,” says Kh Khurram who runs a garments shop in the main bazaar.

There was a huge rush of shoppers in the main bazaar when the fire erupted. Apart from several firefighting units, dozens of ambulances participated in the rescue operation to shift the victims to the hospital.

Lahore Capital City Police Officer Muhammad Amin Wains, the DCO and other officers of the district administration reached the spot and supervised the operation.

Anarkali will remain closed on Tuesday (today) as a mark of solidarity with those who lost their lives in the tragic incident.

Meanwhile, CM Shahbaz Sharif expressed deep sense of sorrow and grief over the loss of human lives and ordered an inquiry into the incident.

A high-level committee has been constituted to ascertain the cause of the fire and estimate compensation for the losses. A Punjab government spokesman said the special committee would submit its recommendations for compensating the losses.