Bangladesh army rejected foreign assistance over Rana Plaza collapse

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Six month after the Rana Plaza building collapse

Bangladesh army rejected foreign assistance over Rana Plaza collapse

David Bergman

Bangladesh’s armed forces division rejected offers of foreign assistance to help with the search and rescue of those who were buried under the nine floor Rana Plaza building in Savar which collapsed six months ago on 24 April killing 1503 people, including the 376 bodies which are thought to remain under the building debris.

The Assistant Defence Attaché at the US embassy in Dhaka, told Bangladesh Politico that within a few hours of the building’s collapse he and a number of other military attaches called their counterparts in the Bangladesh army to offer assistance, but that the offers were rejected.

Bangladesh Politico can also reveal that within 12 hours of the building collapsing, Signapore, Japan, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates had made it known through the United Nation’s Virtual On-site Operations Coordination Centre, that they had an interest in sending a search and rescue team to Bangladesh.

Three of those countries had teams with sufficient personnel and capacity to operate at ‘two separate sites for up to 10 days’ on a 24 hour basis. The website of the UN coordination centre is accessible to Bangladesh government officials and emergency rescue managers.

In May, the NewAge newspaper disclosed that the United Nations Humanitarian advisor had phoned the director general of the fire-brigade on the day of the collapse about the option of the government requesting search and rescue teams through the United Nation’s International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), but that the Food and Disaster ministry had shown no interest.

The paper had also revealed that the day after the building collapse, the government had rejected a formal offer by the UK government to send ‘technical advisory support aimed at addressing the apparent gap in technical coordination capacity.’

In response to these disclosures at the time, Home Secretary Mustak Ahmed said, “The need for immediate foreign assistance was not felt because our rescue operation has been sufficient and exemplary.”

Safe and rescue experts have however told Bangladesh Politico that lives would likely to have been saved if foreign expertise and equipment was utilized at the time.

In an interview, Lieutenant Colonel David Lopes, the US army Assistant Defence Attaché based at the embassy in Dhaka, said that as soon as he heard about the building collapse on 24 April, he called his counterpart Lieutenant Colonel J M Emdadul Islam, the head of joint operations within the Armed Forces Division’s plans and operations directorate which is integrated within the prime minister’s office.

‘I personally called and spoke to my counterpart in the Bangladesh army,’ Colonel Lopes said. ‘I asked, “Do you need assistance?” and he said something like “No, not at this time. We will contact you if needed.”

‘Lieutenant Colonel Emdad works under the principal staff officer [Lieutenant General Abu Belal Mohammad Shafiul Haque]. Anything that comes from Emdad comes from Belal which comes from the prime minister,’ the US assistant defence attache added.

Colonel Lopes said that at the time he made his call it was not clear what the US government could offer. ‘This call was made pre-planning. Possibly we could have sent search and rescue teams, but I have no idea how quickly we could have got them here.’

‘The Bangladesh government has to formally ask us for assistance. Until formal request given, we can’t do anything,’ he said.

Lieutenant Colonel Emdad confirmed that the US military attaché had called him about providing assistance.

‘Lopes called me asked me whether we needed assistance and I clarified the situation with my bosses and they said that whatever equipment we have, we are utilising those and at present that we do not need any assistance,’ Colonel Emdad said.

‘It was not rejected. We appreciated their desire to help, but decision of our authority was that probably we could run the rescue with whatever we had at present.’

Colonel Emdad said that his ‘boss’ at the time was the Director General of the operation plan directorate, Md Jahangir Kabir Talukder, who has since been promoted to the rank of major-general.

The US Colonel also said that the defence attaches of the UK and Chinese embassies had made similar offers, with similar results. ‘I spoke to both of them and I told them about my conversation and they said they had done the same thing and got the same answer.’

A spokesperson for the British High Commission had earlier confirmed that on the day of the collapse it had been in contact with the government making it known that they could request international search and rescue teams from the United Nation’s International Search and Rescue Advisory Group.

It has not been possible to obtain a response from the Chinese defence attaché.

Bangladesh Politico has also learnt that within hours of the building collapse four countries had signed on to the United Nation’s organized Virtual On-site Operations Coordination Centre which is part of Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination system stating that they were ‘monitoring’ the situation.

Terje Skavdal, the Geneva-based head of INSARAG told Bangladesh Politico that, ‘Signapore, Japan, South Korea and United Arab Emirates had marked on the website that they were “monitoring” the [Rana Plaza] situation. This means that if there were to have been a request for assistance from Bangladesh, they could be in a position to send a team.’

‘It could be an indication that a team can be sent, but it is no guarantee that the country can send it. There are other protocols that need to be sorted out, like who will pay for the deployment. So you can have a rescue team “monitoring” the situation, but not sure whether there is agreement at that point on the part of the government to deploy resources to send the team,” he said.

Another UN official with access to the Virtual On-site Operations Coordination Centre also told New Age that “Singapore and Republic of Korea had started monitoring the situation from 1.35pm [on the day of the collapse], then Japan also started later in the evening, of the same day.’

‘These teams could have intervened anytime if requested by Bangladesh. The teams are monitoring a situation [which means they are] ready to deploy upon request from an affected country,’ the senior official told New Age on condition of anonymity.

‘Rescue teams could have been ready to come within 24 hours of any formal request,’ he added.

Signapore, Japan and South Korea are certified by INSARAG as having ‘heavy’ search and rescue teams’ with over 30 members. This certification means that each of the teams could have been able to operate in two separate places, 24 hours a day, for a ten day period and have ‘the operational capability for difficult and complex technical search and rescue operations … typically found in urban settings, when national response capacity has either been overwhelmed or does not possess the required capability.’ United Arab Emirates is certified as a ‘medium’ team.

Two UK based search and rescue experts told Bangladesh Politico that Bangladesh’s rescue effort could have gained from the presence of a small team of experts with experience and equipment and that lives could have been saved.

Rob Davis, the team leader of Search and Rescue Assistance in Disasters, with 18 years of experience in the area, emphasized how search and rescue dogs used along with specialist location equipment would have helped find people buried in the collapsed building.

‘It is unbelievable what these dogs can do,’ Davis said. ‘They can find where smells are coming from and can do it quickly. Using dogs along with sensitive sound location equipment, which can operate in a ten metre radius depending on collapse pattern and debris, you can identify exactly where people are located.’

He agreed that the presence of additional expertise and equipment, working alongside the Bangladesh team at Rana Plaza, ‘could well have saved some lives.’

Willie McMartin, the operational director of International Rescue Corps, who has himself been involved in 32 international rescues, said that INSARAG teams like his would have brought ‘experience and equipment.’

‘There is a huge difference between someone who has only been trained and someone who has actually attended a number of structural collapses of different kinds and who has experience to draw upon,’ he said.

‘A team could have brought sound location equipment, flexible endoscopy camera equipment, and carbon dioxide detectors. Location equipment is very specialised, and would have been useful,’ he said.

McMartin however pointed out that from what he understood the Bangladesh authorities had undertaken a ‘good rescue effort’, and that whilst additional assistance from abroad would have saved ‘some lives,’ it may not have been large numbers.

Bangladesh, has been a member of INSARAG since July 2012.

Two months before formally joining the organization, the government had hosted a four day INSARAG workshop part of which explained how the group worked, how disasters should be reported effectively and how governments can seek foreign assistance.

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