Will Pakistan learn from the PK-8303 crash?

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory located in Manhattan New York, was the scene of one of the most horrific tragedies of the early twentieth century. That fateful afternoon, there were nearly 600 workers in the factory – most of them young immigrant women – when a fire started in a rag bin on the eighth floor of the building. Within minutes eyewitnesses saw harrowing scenes of dense clouds of black smoke billowing over the building as young women jumped out of the windows in desperation. Inside the building, workers were trapped by immovable machinery, doors that were locked from outside, and burnt dead bodies that piled up by the exits. In less than an hour nearly 150 workers died, as the criminal failure of the building’s safety mechanisms became apparent.
The Triangle Factory fire highlighted the miserable working conditions in the city, which coupled with a total lack of workplace safety standards had led to a completely preventable catastrophe. The funeral procession of the victims was joined by nearly 350,000 people, and less than two weeks later a protest march was attended by nearly 100,000 New Yorkers. This exceptional public outcry resulted in the formation of the Factory Investigating Commission (FIC); an agency with unprecedented powers that was tasked with investigating the working conditions in factories across the state of New York, identifying shortcomings, and suggesting improvements. The FIC worked for four years and investigated over 3,000 industrial work-spaces, highlighting several critical inadequacies in the state’s workplace safety laws and recommended wide-ranging reforms. As a result of these recommendations, over 20 new laws were passed, forever changing the workplace safety landscape; automatic sprinkler systems, fire drills, smoke alarms and safe fire exits were made mandatory for any factory to continue operating. Such was the impact of these reforms that until the terrorist attacks of 2001, the Triangle Factory Fire remained the deadliest workplace tragedy in New York’s history.
Over a hundred years later, on May 22, 2020, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) Flight PK-8303 crashed in Karachi, killing all but two of the 99 people onboard. The Airbus 320 had taken off from Lahore and crashed into the densely populated neighbourhood of Karachi called Model Colony. This was the seventh commercial airliner to crash in Pakistan since 20104. As on the previous six occasions, the news of this crash was followed by an outpouring of “shock and grief” expressed by one and all. For a couple of days, the news dominated print, electronic and social media. While some of the coverage was relatively empathetic and informed, there certainly were way too many instances of wild speculation by “analysts” who clearly did not have the slightest clue about aviation, interspersed with tragic visuals of mics being shoved into the faces of people who had just lost their loved ones. All of this lasted only a couple of days though. The national discourse has since moved to “moon-wars” and subsequently to celebrity gossip. For most, other than those 97 families, the PK-8303 crash already seems like a distant memory.
Unfortunately, there is nothing new about what happened in the aftermath of the PK-8303 crash. This is a pattern that predictably unfolds after every national tragedy; it has a life of about two to three days and after running its course it automatically dissipates until the next such tragedy. There clearly are multiple systemic flaws in the aviation safety infrastructure in place in Pakistan, these line up every few months to create the perfect storm. A thorough, professional and impartial investigation into any of the previous six plane crashes that occurred in the country over the last ten years could have prevented future accidents. But instead of ensuring an exhaustive inquiry – along the lines of the FIC – that could identify deficiencies and guide reforms, the government and the people have accepted this new normal where a combination of “shock and grief”, sensationalised media coverage, and dehumanisation of the tragedy are used to brush a completely preventable catastrophe under the carpet.
The current government must turn this crash into an opportunity for an in-depth examination of the aviation safety procedures being practiced in Pakistan, and use that to inform legislation and reform. This would not only prevent similar future tragedies, but would also substantially improve the government’s standing among the masses. In the absence of such an undertaking however, it is only a matter of time when the next crash claims dozens of innocent lives.