Poor security blamed for drowning on reality show

Lifeguards did not arrive until '10 to 12 minutes' after Pakistani contestant died during a difficult series of challenges in Bangkok

Undated handout phtograph of Saad Khan (left red t-shirt) of Karachi who died during a Unilever sponsored reality TV show in Thailand. His friend Fahd Siddiqui is on the right
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LAHORE // Hours before he died, Saad Khan, 32, was chatting with friends on Facebook from his hotel room in Bangkok in between getting the place ready for his wife who was arriving that evening from Pakistan. He was excited, say friends, about his re-entry into a reality television show being sponsored by Unilever, the largest manufacturer of consumer products in Pakistan. The show, in fact, was being shot as part of a promotional campaign for Clear shampoo, with the winner being crowned "Clear Man". "Saad had modelled in the past and was really looking forward to being a part of this show," said Babar Jumani, a close friend and colleague. "He had always been interested in fashion and television." Khan, a father of four children, had a lot going for him, says Mr Jumani. "He was a totally self-made man who had risen from the bottom up and had managed to make it to the top of one of Pakistan's largest banks," he said. "He was doing great in his career, and had a lovely wife and four children." Only a few days into the show, Khan, who has been described by other contestants as the "life of the show" and "the person most likely to win the title", was eliminated. According to the anonymous blog account of one contestant, Khan was eliminated during a challenge in the fourth round in which he had to get a ball into an elevated basket while standing on a block of ice. Khan, the contestants were told, would be leaving in two days. But the show organisers, instead of sending Khan home, moved him to another hotel room and kept his presence hidden from the other contestants, before reintroducing him to the show a few days later. "On the 19th we were preparing for the other task on the set of the show, when we suddenly saw a tall figure coming towards us smiling," the contestant writes. "It was Saad bhai. We hooted and danced in excitement. Finally we got to meet him again, it was a big and a pleasant surprise for all of us. He was the life of the whole show; we had missed him a lot." The first challenge Khan was given upon his return entailed hoisting a 7kg bag on his shoulders and running through fire, swimming across a pond and then climbing a rope. According to Fareshteh Gaitee Aslam, information officer for Unilever Pakistan, "Saad was swimming across a lake when he called out for help and then disappeared underwater". While Unilever says fellow contestants and crew rushed to save Khan, but could not find him in the muddy waters, several other versions of the story exist. Mr Jumani says despite the investigations of Khan's friends and family, no single and credible account had emerged so far. "Some say it was a lake, others say it was a shallow pond while still others say it was a reservoir," he said. "Some say there were lifejackets, others say divers were standing by while still others say there was nobody." Mr Jumani and Khan's family have asked Unilever to provide them with the footage that captures Khan's death but they have yet to receive it. When asked to explain the security arrangements at the site of the accident, Ms Aslam said security was not Unilever's responsibility. "We are a company which makes shampoos and soaps," she said. "We had signed a contract for an advertising company who were responsible for filming the show. The technical team for the show came from Bangkok while the film crew was flown in from India. Our contract with the advertising concern did emphasise that adequate security preparations should be made." A request put forth by The National to see the contract between Unilever and the advertising company, Mindshare, has yet to be fulfilled. Calls made to Mindshare were not returned. But an advertising insider who works at Mindshare revealed that security is never a major consideration when planning campaigns. "I am not surprised this happened because advertising companies never make security a priority," he said. "Stunts are now often made a part of ad campaigns but the precautions which should be taken when doing such difficult campaigns are usually lax." The contestant writing the blog gave an account of the accident that suggests the necessary precautions were not taken. "Saad cleared the first stage, which was running through fire; he jumped in the pond and swam ? When he reached the middle of the pond he suddenly turned and changed his style to backstroke, he looked troubled, we shouted and asked him to open his 7kg backpack, and he struggled to open it. While struggling he yelled for help and disappeared in the water. When there was no response from him, we dived in the pond to look for him, but couldn't find him as the water was very muddy, and I came out. We started screaming and crying for help but there was no help around. After around 10 minutes his back pack came up floating on the water. The lifeguards came 10 to 12 minutes after the incident occurred and recovered Saad bhai's body." Nael Ahmad, a model who once took part in an underwater shoot for a soft drink company, says there is a dearth of security standards in the advertising world. "It's very person-dependent," he said. "There are no safety standards that apply across the board. If the team leader is good, the safety will be good. If the team leader is not very particular, security can be compromised." The Lahore-based lawyer Sardar Qasim Farooq says one reason why companies are sometimes careless when it comes to safety is because in Pakistan there is no tradition of consumers holding corporations to account. "The law of torts has yet to become a part of our society, which means that the power of the consumer, or in this case the participants, has yet to be established," he said. Ms Aslam said Unilever will offer Khan's family some financial compensation but it was up to the family whether to reveal the amount. She also said this was being done out of a sense of "rightness", not legal obligation. Reality shows have only recently become a regular feature on Pakistan's television networks. A popular reality show on Geo television, Pakistan's largest private television network, follows the efforts of a foreigner trying to get Pakistani citizenship. Another popular show does matchmaking in front of a live audience. * The National