LAHORE  - There was hustle and bustle as usual in the New Anarkali main bazaar on Monday evening with shoppers roaming in the streets and shopkeepers luring customers in their traditional style. No one had the idea that the next moment an inferno would wreak havoc in the bazaar.

All of a sudden, the jumbles of electric wires started sparking right at the main and only entrance of the Al-Karim Watch Market, a three-storey building which houses dozens of wholesalers of wristwatches.

In front of the building the traders were seen in tears as goods and valuables worth million of rupees reduced to ashes within no time. “The fire has reduced everything to ashes within minutes. The shops are totally burnt. The blaze has thrown the traders on the road,” said Muhammad Azeem with sobbing eyes.

According to official sources, four persons were burnt to death on-the-spot while 10 victims were shifted to the Mayo hospital, where nine of them were pronounced as “received dead”.

The traders of New Anarkali shut down their business and launched the rescue operation on self help basis as the blaze erupted in the building.

“The inferno was so intense that the iron-gate, the only exit point, started melting, leaving no chance for the entrapped persons to flee”, a 40-year-old shopkeeper told this reporter. He said that the blaze broke out because of short-circuiting. “This is criminal negligence on part of the Lahore Electric Supply Company because the jumbles of electric wires on the main gate caused short-circuiting”, he added.

A 19-year old Waleed, son of Mateen-ur-Rehman, President trade union Al-Karim Watch market, Waleed, was among 13 persons who were burnt alive before the firefighters responded to the emergency.

The fire broke out at 5:30pm in the evening and intensified within minutes. The fire spread so quickly that it gave no chance to the entrapped persons to escape.

At least 16 firefighting vehicles and around 80 firefighters participated in the search and rescue operation which ended at 7:00pm.

Traders also blamed poor response of the firefighters despite the fact that they were informed soon after the happening. “The rescuers reached the spot after a considerable delay. Again, the firefighting units also reached the site very late because of encroachments in the main bazaar,” said Muhammad Naeem, a member of the New Anarkali trade union.

A great number of shopkeepers and traders gathered at the site and the policemen had to use a loudspeaker on multiple occasions to ask the crowd to clear the way so that the rescue vehicles could be given smooth passage.

Heavy police contingents and ambulances reached the spot soon after the incident and shifted the victims to the hospital.

One injured man, Mazhar, who suffered 15 per cent burn wounds, was discharged from the hospital after treatment.

Those who died in the incident were identified as Waleed, 19, Syed Sheraz Ali Nazami, 34, Nauman Khan, 25, Ateeq-ur-Rehman, 22, Haji Iqbal, 45, M Azam, 30, Azam Uncle, 55, Sajid, 34, Iqbal, 29, and Azam, son of Nazir.

According to hospital sources, a 35-year-old woman, yet to be identified, was also among the dead. A police official said that the body of another man was brunt beyond recognition. The rescuers ended the operation late Monday and said that the process to cool the building was underway.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has announced Rs 500,000 as compensation for the heirs of the victims of the fire. The Chief Minister has also constituted a high-level committee which consists of Health Secretary, Lahore CCPO, DCO, Commissioner, MNA Pervaiz Malik, Provincial Ministers Bilal Yasin and Mian Mujhtaba Shujaur Rehman for the compensation. The committee will make an assessment of the losses to compensate the losses.