AFTER 17 days trapped under the wreckage of a collapsed factory, a woman was carried starving but unscathed from the scene of a tragedy that has now claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people.
Rescue workers cheered as Reshma Begum emerged from the debris of the building in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, having survived on a supply of dried food that had run out two days earlier.
According to one rescuer, she was heard crying out “Save me!” as crews dug for bodies rather than survivors. She was found near a Muslim prayer room in the basement of the eight-storey clothing factory.
Her survival gave rescue teams a glimmer of hope, as the number of people confirmed dead reached 1,045, making it one of the worst industrial disasters of modern times.
Ms Begum told how she was working on the factory’s second floor when it began to collapse.
She ran down a stairwell into the basement, where she became trapped by the wreckage in a pocket that allowed her to survive. She said: “I heard voices of the rescue workers for the past several days. I kept hitting the wreckage with sticks and rods just to attract their attention.
“No-one heard me. It was so bad for me. I never dreamed I’d see the daylight again.
“There was some dried food around me. I ate the dried food for 15 days.
“The last two days, I had nothing but water. I used to drink only a limited quantity of water to save it. I had some bottles of water around me.”
Ms Begum lives in a rented house in a Dhaka suburb with her sister Asma, who works at a different garment factory.
Asma said she and her mother had kept a vigil for the seamstress, who is originally from a rural district, 170 miles north of Dhaka.
She said they had been losing hope amid an endless string of grim days, when only dead bodies were being removed from the rubble.
But after visiting the hospital, she said: “We got her back just when we had lost all our hope to find her alive – God is so merciful.”
Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina called Ms Begum in hospital, and the lucky survivor told her: “I am fine. Please pray for me”.
The premier, whose government has been criticised for its lax oversight of the powerful, multi-billion-pound garment industry, was heading to the hospital by helicopter to meet Ms Begum.
She also congratulated the rescuers, saying: “This is an unbelievable feat.”
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest garment exporter, behind China, and the Rana Plaza collapse was just the latest in a series of accidents.
The owner of the building, Sohel Rana, had reportedly been told by an engineer examining cracks a day before the collapse that the Rana Plaza was unsafe. But workers were told to come to work the next day, and the building collapsed shortly after their shifts started.
More than 2,500 people were pulled from the debris after the collapse on 24 April, but, until yesterday, no survivors had been found since Shakin Akter on the 28th. However, as workers tried to free Ms Akter, a fire broke out and she died of smoke inhalation.
Ms Begum managed to alert rescuers by banging a steel pipe, according to Abdur Razzak, of the military’s engineering corps, who first spotted her in the wreckage. Workers ran into the dark rubble to free her, he said.
They ordered the cranes and bulldozers to immediately stop, got hold of flashlights and used handsaws and welding and drilling equipment to cut through the iron rods and debris trapping Ms Begum. They gave her water, oxygen and saline as they worked to free her.
When she was released after 40 minutes, the crowd erupted in wild cheers.
Soldiers and men in hard hats then carried Ms Begum on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance, which took her to a military hospital. Her rescuers said she was in remarkably good condition despite her ordeal. Mr Razzak said she could even walk.
According to local reports, she told rescuers she had scavenged biscuits from the rucksacks of dead colleagues.
An army official at the scene said: “She was fine, no injuries. She was just trapped. The space was wide.”
Hospital doctors told Bangla-deshi television she was out of danger and that her kidney and liver functions were fine.
Major-General Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy, head of the local military, said the bodies of three other people that Ms Begum had seen near her were later recovered.
The building housed thousands of garment workers in five factories and officials reported the owner had illegally added three floors and allowed the installation of heavy machines and generators, even though the structure was not designed to support such equipment. The owner and eight other people have been detained.
Since the collapse, hundreds of people have been engaged in the grim job of removing decomposing bodies from the site, pausing yesterday to raise their hands together in prayer for Ms Begum’s survival.
Before she was pulled from the rubble, a man speaking into a loudspeaker said: “God, you are the greatest, you can do anything. Please allow us all to rescue the survivor just found. We seek apology for our sins. Please pardon us, pardon the person found alive.”
Brigadier-General Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, an army official overseeing the recovery work, said the bodies being recovered from Rana Plaza were badly decomposed and identification was difficult.
He said: “We are working carefully. If we get any ID card or mobile phone with them, we can still identify them. Our sincere effort is to at least hand over the bodies to the families.”
Officials said more than half the estimated 7,000 tonnes of debris had been removed from the site so far but could not say when the work would be finished.
A number of survivors are still in hospital with amputated limbs and suffering from trauma and depression.
The disaster has heightened fears over working conditions in the industry. Primark was one of the clothing retailers that was supplied by the factory that collapsed. It has said it will compensate victims.
DHAKA FACTORY COLLAPSE