SAVAR, Bangladesh — The mother stood at the edge of the wreckage, pressing her lips to photos of her two children — Asma, who had worked in a garment factory on the fourth floor, and Sultan, who worked on the fifth.
For five days after the building collapsed, rescue teams had retrieved corpses and survivors, but not her son and daughter. Tears on her cheeks, she began to shout: at a soldier sweating beneath a hard hat, at the shattered building, at her god, and finally at her children, calling out their names, beckoning to them, “Today, I’m here! But you haven’t come back!”
Thousands of people surrounded the site on Sunday, watching the huge rescue operation, even as hopes faded that many more victims would be found alive. For nearly 12 hours, rescuers tried to save a trapped woman, lowering dry food and juice to her as they carefully cut through the wreckage trying to reach her. But then a fire broke out, apparently killing the woman, leaving many firefighters in tears.
With national outrage boiling over, Bangladeshi paramilitary officers tracked down and arrested Sohel Rana, the owner of the building, who was hiding near the Indian border, and returned him by helicopter to Dhaka. When loudspeakers at the rescue site announced his capture earlier in the day, local news reports said, the crowd broke out in cheers.
The collapse of the building, the Rana Plaza, is considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry. It is known to have claimed at least 377 lives, and hundreds more workers are thought to be missing still, buried in the rubble.
The Rana Plaza building contained five garment factories, employing more than 3,000 workers, who were making clothing for European and American consumers. Labor activists, citing customs records, company Web sites or labels discovered in the wreckage, say that the factories produced clothing for JC Penney; Cato Fashions; Benetton; Primark, the low-cost British store chain; and other retailers.
Everywhere near the building, the stench of death was overpowering. Men in surgical masks sprayed disinfectant in the air. Others sprayed air freshener. At one point, the police said, searches inside the structure were suspended because some rescuers were overcome by dust and the odor of decomposing bodies.
Savar is a crowded industrial suburb of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and the disaster has overwhelmed local institutions. A high school near Rana Plaza is now a staging ground for the identification of corpses. Nazma Begum, 25, stood beside a crude coffin that contained the remains of her sister, Shamima. She was standing guard over it until her father arrived to take the sister back to their home village to be buried. Sticks of burning incense had been wedged into the coffin to fight the awful smell.
“I had hoped that my sister was still alive,” she said softly. “But that hope is now shattered.”
Like so many young women in the country, the two sisters had gotten work in garment factories to help support their families. Ms. Begum makes about $85 a month; her sister made $56. Now Ms. Begum wants to quit her job. She has heard rumors that the building where she works is unsafe.
Just then a group of young men placed another coffin nearby, slid open the wooden lid and sprayed the body with disinfectant. A man on a megaphone made an announcement: “We have a new body,” he said, as a crowd surged toward the coffin. “You can come and see the body to identify it.”
For days, rescuers crawled though pancaked spaces on their hands and knees, afraid that using heavy machinery would collapse the building further. Lowered precariously into holes, they called out through the rubble and the darkness, listening for the voices of survivors. Many were saved in the painstaking process.
“We were shouting, asking if anyone was alive,” said Sharif ul-Islam, 35, a firefighter. “We would say, ‘If anyone is alive, please make a sound! We will come to you!’ ”
Finding and identifying all the missing may take weeks or longer. Thousands of homemade posters for missing loved ones have been affixed to the walls outside the school, to nearby buildings, to the branches of trees, to the gate of Enam Medical College and Hospital, where so many victims are being treated.
The posters have a poignant similarity: One husband, Mohammed Siddique, is looking for his wife, Shahida Akter. She is smiling in her photograph, posing with a cellphone. Another husband is looking for Alpana Rani. She is smiling in her photograph, too, holding her daughter.
In his ground-floor office, the director of Enam Hospital, Dr. Mohammed Anawarul Quader Nazim, said that more than 650 survivors had been brought in since the Wednesday morning disaster. The scope of injuries was horrifying: fractured skulls, crushed rib cages, severed livers, ruptured spleens. One survivor lost both legs. So many people suffered crushed limbs that his hospital sent a medical team to the wreckage to help handle on-site amputations. He keeps a list of amputees on his desk: A teenage girl named Sania lost her right leg. Another teenager, Anna, lost her right hand.
Upstairs in the Intensive Care Unit, Laboni Khanam, 22, lay in a bed, dazed. She was rescued after being trapped for 36 hours, but to save her life, rescuers had to amputate her left arm, which was pinned beneath a pillar. She begged them to save her arm but they told her they had no choice. They gave her an anesthetic but the agony was excruciating.
“I can’t describe how painful it was,” she recalled. “My life is ruined now.”
With so many lives ruined or lost, public anger has largely focused on Mr. Rana, the building’s owner. Garment industry leaders have blamed him for lying about the structural safety of the building; when cracks were discovered the day before the disaster, Mr. Rana is accused of assuring factory bosses that the building was safe to operate.
After his arrest, Mr. Rana blamed the owners of the garment factories for insisting on operating the morning of the disaster.
“I did not force the owners,” he said, according to bdnews24.com, an online news source in Bangladesh. “It was them who forced me, saying they would face huge losses, and shipments would be canceled if the factories were closed for even one day.”
The Rana Plaza disaster, coming five months after 112 garment workers died in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory, has brought renewed criticism of the failure of Western brands to ensure safe working conditions in the factories they use in Bangladesh. In recent days, different Western brands have expressed sorrow over the accident but none, as yet, has endorsed proposals for tougher independent safety inspection programs.
Soon, the rescue efforts at Rana Plaza will likely come to a close and the operation will shift toward clearing the rubble. Late on Sunday night, rescuers started using two cranes and other heavy machinery. Officials are suggesting that few, if any, are likely still alive.
Yet there are still thousands of people clinging to hope. A young wife who managed to escape the fourth floor was sitting on the ground, holding a photo of her husband, who had been working on the third floor. And another woman sat less than 50 yards from the building, crying, surrounded by invoices from garment orders that were scattered on the ground.
When a soldier asked her to move somewhere safer and farther away from the wreckage, she wailed at him. She had two sons somewhere inside the building.
“It would be better if you killed me,” she said, “than if you asked me to go away.”
Source: New York Times