October 23rd, 2021 

By Hamid Riaz 


LAHORE

Debris lines the streets adjacent to the Benz Juice Factory located on Lahore’s Multan road, the site of a horrendous blast on October 21.

But even 24 hours after the blast took place, there were no investigation teams to be seen – not from the factory itself nor from the  government authorities. In fact, the police had not even bothered to seal the site of the blast so that a forensic team could inspect the site.

A cover-up in plain view ?

The only visible signs of human activity at the blast were laborer’s sealing off the blast site with speedily erected brick walls. Ironically the very factory workers who were nearly killed in the explosion are the ones building the walled perimeter.

“No employee died in the explosion,” said a visibly distressed factory worker who kept stealing glances over his shoulder to in case someone from the factory management was listening in.

He recounted that there had initially been a small explosion within the factory at about 7:20 am, which quickly turned into a huge blaze. Some 150 workers who had been performing their duties within the premises exited via the main factory door when just ten minutes later, at 7:30 am, a much larger explosion took place. The fire shot up several meters high into the air in a big, burning mushroom like cloud.

“But thank God, no one was hurt because we had already evacuated,” he said. His claim seemed almost miraculous considering the sheer size of the explosion which levelled nearly an entire section of the factory.

During the conversation, another laborer who overheard our conversation shimmied close enough to whisper that one of their fellows was critically burned in the blast and had been shifted to Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital.

“He was the bravest of us. He stayed behind when everyone else ran to safety. He made sure that the fire did not reach the boiler, because if it had then nobody would have survived,” he quickly said in a hushed tone before busying himself before carrying off a fresh pile of bricks.

Factory workers asserted that only one person, a passerby who was riding his motorcycle on the stretch of road right in front of the factory, had died as a result of the blast. Reportedly, he rammed into a trolley in the blast wave from the second explosion.

The fear was palpable among the workers who were continuously trying to fight the urge to speak out against what had happened a day before. When VoicePk.net asked whether the factory was still operational, one laborer instantly replied in the negative before he was contradicted by his fellow not a moment later.

“We are still working. The factory is open. There are workers still inside the half-charred factory unit. I will not lie to you,” he said before hurrying back to mixing concrete for the newly built factory wall.

From the perspective of haggard residents 

Unlike the workers, residents living around the factory which is operating in a highly densely-populated locality were a lot more open about the explosion and its impacts.

“The blast was so intense that pieces of the factories wall crashed into our house like shattered glass after a car accident. The blast even destroyed a portion of my house’s boundary; it jolted the very foundations of my house. [When the blast occurred], I ran outside to see the devastation with my own eyes,” narrated a resident of a house a mere 15 to 20 feet from the outer boundary of the factory.”

When he exited his home, he recalled he saw nothing but fire everywhere. He expressed his utter surprise when he was told that the factory’s laborers have claimed no one died in the explosion.

“They are lying to protect their jobs. I can tell you for a fact that I saw two dead bodies with my own eyes,” he insisted on the figure which is closer to the one being reported by mainstream news outlets and Rescue 1122.

The death toll is not the only contradiction between the narratives of the workers, and the residents of the area. For instance, one member of the factory management who was manning the door, stated that the unit was not operational at the time of the blast. While according to the workers, 150 of them were working inside the unit when the incident occurred. The residents also maintain that the whirring of factory machines could easily be heard right before the blast, indicating that the factory had been operational at the time.

A tour of the factory, courtesy Benz Juices 

For reasons unexplained, the factory management was extremely disappointed over the media’s coverage of the blast and hence very apprehensive about letting people inside the factory. Upon insisting, Voicepk.net was given a guided tour of the factory but prohibited from making any videos or taking photos. Apart from broken windows, the front of the factory seemed largely undamaged by the blast. It was the back that appeared to have been the epicenter of the disaster, as it had been destroyed beyond recognition.

The narrow alleyway surrounded by locked rooms leading to the back of the factory opened up to a truck that had been brunt black and the mangled remains of what turned out to be cars. The generator room and several large warehouses adjacent to it had been turned into mounds of melted metal and crumbled bricks. The factory escort led us to a large warehouse right next to the blast epicenter where, securely bolted in the middle of the chamber, was a surprisingly untouched boiler, gleaming as if new.

“Here is the boiler,” he pointed to it with a look of vindication. “The media is lying. If the boiler had burst, the blast would have been much bigger. It was probably caused by the LPG cylinders stored close to the boiler.”

When asked what caused the LPG cylinders to explode, the confidence on his face visibly crumbled away.

“We don’t actually know what caused the explosion,” he shrugged.

Government complicity and corrupt practices? 

Another resident who lives close by and ran to the site of the explosion immediately after the blast told Voicepk.net that the complete absence of any government officials or law enforcement personnel at the blast site is evidence enough that the authorities are complicit.

“There are dozens of such factories in this densely populated residential area. How can that happen without the knowledge of the authorities?” he posited. “I thank Allah that the blast took place so early in the morning because in the afternoons these streets are overflowing with people. If the blast had happened at that time the loss of life would have been unimaginable. But the authorities are still sleeping. I assure you that the only thing that will come from this will be that corrupt government officials will increase their “going rate”. Meanwhile we are in fear walking down our own streets.”

For its part, the Punjab Government announced the formation of a high-level investigation team to probe the incident, adding that the factory has been handed over to the police for further investigations. However, the facts on the ground say otherwise.

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