April 26, 2013

Bangladesh disaster: Factories ignored order to evacuate

The death toll climbs to 275 in the collapse of a building where cracks had been seen in the walls.

By AL-EMRUN GARJON and JULHAS ALAM The Associated Press

SAVAR, Bangladesh - "Save us, brother. I beg you, brother," Mohammad Altab moaned to the rescuers who could not help him. He had been trapped for more than 24 hours, pinned between slabs of concrete in the ruins of the garment factory building where he worked.

Bangladesh mourners
click image to enlarge

People mourn in front of the remains of their relatives who died in the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, 19 miles outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Thursday. The number of people killed by the collapse of the building rose to 275.

Reuters

"I want to live," he pleaded, his eyes glistening with tears as he spoke of his two young children. "It's so painful here."

Altab should not have been in the building when it collapsed Wednesday, killing at least 275 people.

No one should have.

After seeing deep cracks in the walls of the building Tuesday, police ordered it evacuated. But officials at the garment factories operating inside ignored the order and kept more than 2,000 people working, authorities said.

The disaster in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, the capital city, is the worst ever for Bangladesh's booming and powerful garment industry, surpassing a fire five months ago that killed 112 people and brought widespread pledges to improve the country's worker-safety standards.

Instead, little has changed in Bangladesh, where wages, among the lowest in the world, have made it a magnet for numerous global brands. Companies operating in the collapsed building say their customers included retail giants such as Walmart, Dress Barn and Britain's Primark.

On Thursday, hundreds of rescuers, some crawling through the maze of rubble in search of survivors and bodies, spent a second day working amid the cries of the trapped and the wails of workers' relatives gathered outside the Rana Plaza building, which housed numerous garment factories and a handful of other companies.

Rescuers on Thursday evening found 40 survivors trapped in a room on the fourth floor. Twelve were soon freed, and crews worked to get the others out safely, said Brig. Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, who is overseeing rescue operations.

An Associated Press cameraman who went into the rubble Thursday morning with rescue workers spoke briefly to Atlab, the man who pleaded to be saved. But the team was unable to free Atlab, who was trapped next to two bodies.

From deep inside the rubble, another survivor could be heard weeping as he called for help.

"We want to live, brother! It's hard to remain alive here. It would have been better to die than enduring such pain to live on. We want to live! Please save us," the man cried. It was not immediately clear if he or Atlab were among those later rescued.

After the cracks were reported, managers of a bank that had an office in the building evacuated their employees. The garment factories, though, kept working, ignoring the instructions of the local industrial police, said Mostafizur Rahman, a director of that police force.

Abdur Rahim, who worked on the fifth floor, said he and his co-workers had gone inside Wednesday morning despite seeing the cracks. He said a factory manager had assured people it was safe.

About an hour later, the building collapsed, and the next thing Rahim remembered was regaining consciousness outside.

Officials said they had made it clear that the building needed to be evacuated.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association had also asked the factories to suspend their work.

"After we got the crack reports, we asked them to suspend work until further examination, but they did not pay heed," said Atiqul Islam, the group's president.

As crews bored deeper into the wreckage, the odor of decaying bodies wafted through the building. Bangladesh's junior minister for home affairs, Shamsul Haque, said 2,000 people had been rescued.

Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy, a top military officer in the Savar area, said search and rescue operations would continue for at least three days after the collapse.

(Continued on page 2)

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