In 2012, 259 people died inside a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan. It was a day when workers were collecting their salaries, so the building was massively over-occupied. There should have been a maximum of 260 people working at the site but there were actually approximately 800 to 900 people in the building at the time. When the fire broke out, the only staircase in the building quickly became unusable due to the intense heat and smoke so people were unable to evacuate. There was no emergency or external staircase. There were doors that led onto the adjacent building that formed another part of the factory complex, but those doors had been locked by the management, leaving people trapped on the floor they were on. Deficiencies in the cargo lift meant there were cavities on the ground level, which is where the fire started, enabling smoke from the fire to travel up the elevator shaft much faster than it should have done.
In April 2017, in collaboration with the European Centre for Constitutional Human Rights (ECCHR), Forensic Architecture (FA) worked on a project to gather evidence for a court case against the German clothing manufacturer KiK, based in Dortmund, to win compensation for family members of those who died in the KiK garment building fire in Karachi five years earlier. Using testimony, photographs, a few videos and drawings of the building to construct a 3D model of it, we looked at building regulations from Pakistani Law, Karachi Town and Planning Law, and Social Accountability International SA8000 guidelines, which are a social certification standard for factories, and we scrutinised the building to see if it was in compliance with these building codes. We identified the exact clauses that proved the building was in violation of building codes, and produced a video of evidence for the court in Dortmund, enumerating the ways the clothing company had failed to meet guidelines and protect its workers. Working with Edmund Ang, a specialist from Imperial College, we created two smoke simulations. One recreated the exact conditions of that night and the level of permeation of the smoke and the rate of the spread of the fire. In the other simulation, Ang reconstructed the main and only staircase serving all floors going through the building and the elevator shaft to demonstrate the smoke egress through the doors. 0.5 square metres for the whole building was a reasonable estimation of egress for the surface area and he was able to run that simulation to see how the smoke would have spread had the shaft been fire safe. Working with a crowd simulation expert, Dr Virginia Alonso-Gutierrez, we were able to run a series of simulations where the configuration of the building was no longer in violation of the codes. So for example, in the real-life scenario the fire alarm failed and people were only alerted to the danger via word of mouth and by hearing shouts and screams of others and seeing people running through the building. According to the simulation, had a properly functioning fire alarm gone off it would have dramatically reduced the response time and massively increased the number of people who could have escaped. We ran a scenario with basic fire precautions being adhered to such as doors open, exits unlocked and an accessible stairway, to demonstrate the extent of deaths that could have been avoided. The factory owners were sentenced to prison terms but although KiK has provided some compensation to families they have refused to apologise and accept responsibility for the fatalities. From our perspective they were negligent in the way they sourced their clothing. In the pursuit for cheap clothing and in an attempt to push the bottom line in terms of costs they outsourced the risk of the process of the supply chain to this factory in Karachi and the result was an appalling fire and devastating loss of life.