LAHORE: Muhammad Anees sits upright on the hospital bed which is stained with the grime from his body. Some of his blood, seeping out from his wounds has also left dark reddish brown spots on the sheet.
His face is markedly swollen, one of his eyes puffed up to the point of a darkly comic sight, surrounding skin tinged with bluish purple bruises.
He has been in hospital since Monday, the day Orient Laboratories, at Multan Road, was reportedly blasted off by a gas cylinder, resulting in at least 21 deaths, and many others feared buried beneath mounds of debris.
Anees recounts his awful experience. He was trapped under a table, which in turn was heaving under the weight of the debris.
A pile of bricks was resting on top of his head which he had eventually gotten rid off, by wriggling out from under them. He could only move his legs, and by ‘paddling’ them up and down, he managed to save some other boys who were trapped in the same room as him.
“Our employer used to tell us to leave the gas on after we left work each Saturday,” said Anees, his lips dry and chapped with dehydration. “He said the gas could be turned off on Monday and over the weekend the cylinder would be filled in.”
But on Monday the cylinder exploded.
The four-storey illegal building, collapsed as a result and the amount of debris of the structure is still piled high even four days after the incident.
Rescue 1122 workers managed to save about 15 to 16 people by Wednesday morning, including a man who had been trapped underneath for 47 hours (and later died), and a 60-year-old woman who came out miraculously almost uninjured, but 21 others died instantly in all probability.
Another patient, Imran, says he could never forget the horrifying experience that he had on Monday. “It was so suffocating; I could not breathe because of the dust and debris I was locked under. I don’t think I can ever forget this. Closed rooms will always suffocate me.”
For Anees, a matter of instant pride was the fact that he had saved his best friend. “As I was wriggling my legs, I let loose my friend Shehryar. I let loose others also in the same way. But I’m lying here feeling good just to know that I saved my best friend.”
As a gesture of gratitude, Shehryar who was not admitted came all the way to meet Anees in hospital.
But, according to some estimates, about eight more people were still buried beneath the debris. Two orange cranes roam around the area like monsters, dragging the soil in order to get rid of the debris, then eventually dig deeper so others can be rescued.
Two women workers are also helping the rescuers by telling them where to dig. They are from the packaging department of the factory and know where most people would be trapped.
Shazia points to the place where, she thinks, some people she knows are trapped.
“I know many people who are still missing,” she says. “One of them was our manager, a complete tyrant who used to take all our hard earned money. She must have learnt her lesson now.”
She says none of them have slept since four days.
“How can we when all our colleagues are stuck in that awful grave? And especially after seeing the dead bodies of our friends being brought out …I remember this boy who we used to call ‘Hero’…he’s gone now,” she says, a tinge of sadness flickers across her face.
Despite the level of death and destruction, not many authorities or political leaders have shown up. Despite the site of collapse falling under a PML-N constituency, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif could not visit the site till Wednesday evening.
“It is expected that chief minister will just distribute cash among the bereaved families to stem the situation,” says Ajmal who has lost his sister-in-law in the collapse. “But who can equate the death of our families with money?”