‘Suddenly, the floor wasn’t there,’ says survivor of Bangladesh building collapse that has claimed 250 lives

Published: April 25, 2013
Bangladesh

Soldiers evacuate a survivor after she was recovered, 60 hours later, from the rubble of a collapsed eight-storey building in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 26, 2013. STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

ARUN DEVNATH and MEHUL SRIVASTAVA   
BLOOMBERG

Deep into the night, Enam Medical College and Hospital is layered with grief.

Near the entrance, where families rush each approaching ambulance in a frantic, wailing search for a loved one, lies Momena Begum, 28, pregnant and injured. Her mother died in the rubble of Rana Plaza, the eight-story building in this suburb of Dhaka that claimed at least 250 lives when it collapsed April 24. Her brother died too.

Two levels above, 19-year-old Zahanara Khatum, her leg injured and a saline drip in her arm, still can’t comprehend how she ended up in the hospital.

“Suddenly, the floor I was working on wasn’t there,” she said. “I don’t know how I got here.”

The second major accident to scar Bangladesh’s $18 billion garment industry in five months comes after Western companies have pledged repeatedly to improve the safety of about 2.4 million workers — the vast majority of them women. In November, 112 people died in a blaze barely 10 kilometres east at a factory where employees stitched clothes for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Sears Holdings Corp. and C&A.

The toll was still mounting last night as rescuers pulled bodies from the rubble in Savar, where workers made clothes for Loblaw Co.’s Joe Fresh label and Associated British Food Plc.’s Primark chain.

“When people lose loved ones in an accident like this, their pain is so deep, it seems it’s beyond our capacity to cope,” said Muhammad Amirul Islam, a doctor at the hospital, where medical students were enlisted to work through the night. The road outside was lined with people, the air full of cries and ambulance sirens.
Emergency Amputations

Abdul Gani, an orthopedic surgeon, was one of more than 100 doctors working in triage units at the site, giving first aid or carrying out emergency amputations before survivors are sent to hospital.

“The number of dead will keep rising because they still have to do a lot of excavation,” Gani said by phone. “Most of the victims are women in their teens and twenties. It is really very, very sad to see.”

Rahima Begum, 30, knew something was wrong long before the building fell apart around her. A day earlier, she walked up the five floors to Ether Textile Ltd. and started her shift operating a sewing machine. For $56 a month, she worked eight hours a day. Overtime brought in $40 more.

Primark said a supplier located in Rana Plaza made garments for Primark. When the London-based chain checks suppliers, it doesn’t look at the structure of their buildings, focusing instead on working conditions such as overtime, safety, labelling of chemicals, and fire risks. It recently made its own audit of the factory, which passed, Chris Barrie, an Associated British Foods spokesman, said by phone.

Emptied Out

For Rahima Begum, April 23 was filled with warnings. At 10 a.m., workers at other factories and offices emptied out of the building. Half an hour later, a manager, who she didn’t name, told her floor to clear out, too.

“The manager said there was a boiler blast on the third floor,” Rahima said yesterday, in an interview at the one-room hut she shares with her husband and their seven-year-old daughter. “That was a lie.”

She filed out with the rest of the fifth floor. She waited. She ate lunch. When Rahima returned, the factory was abuzz — cracks were clearly visible in the walls.

She said the manager told them the walls would be fixed, and the building would be “perfect” the next day.

Building Fissures

It wasn’t. The fissures were still there and hundreds of workers refused to go inside, she said. In the same building, officials at Brac Bank Ltd. had their employees vacate the premises the night before, said spokesman Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq.

At Ether Textiles, managers took the opposite decision. They threatened to withhold a month’s pay if workers didn’t start immediately, Rahima said. Ether Textiles officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

“I was helpless,” she said. “I can’t think of a day without work.” Assured by the managers that the building was safe, she started work.

An hour later — darkness. The power failed.

“My heart sank,” she said.

Then, the pillars started crashing.

Before the collapse, at least 700 people had been killed since 2005 in Bangladesh’s garment industry, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group. Every accident has brought promises from Western companies of improved supervision of local suppliers. Behind the scenes, though, different decisions are made.

Industry Agreement

In April 2011, Wal-Mart officials decided at a meeting of retailers that the world’s biggest company by sales wouldn’t join an industry agreement to pay Bangladeshi factories a higher price so they could afford safety upgrades, Bloomberg News reported in December. Neither did Gap Inc.

“We are talking about 4,500 factories, and in most cases very extensive and costly modifications would need to be undertaken,” Wal-Mart said, according to minutes of the meeting. “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.” Net income at the Bentonville, Arkansas- based company was $17 billion last year.

In November, clothing bound for Wal-Mart and Sears Holding Corp. was discovered in the ruins of a factory that caught fire, killing 112 people. Both companies have said suppliers used the factory without their permission and were fired.

Wal-Mart is investigating its supply chain to see if a factory in Rana Plaza was producing for the company, Kevin Gardner, a spokesman, said yesterday in an emailed statement.

‘Tragic Event’

“We are sorry to learn of this tragic event,” Gardner said. “We remain committed and are actively engaged in promoting stronger safety measures, and that work continues.”

Nothing has changed since the fire, said Stefan Strandlund, an independent sourcing consultant whose clients include U.K. retailers. He’s lived in Bangladesh for a year, moving there after more than a dozen trips where he found suppliers and factories for Western companies. He blames corruption for allowing greedy suppliers to evade standards, putting safety at risk.

“Often politicians or ex-Army, who’ve come into a lot of money, they buy some land, build a building to make more money,” he said in a phone interview from Bangladesh. “They don’t really follow any standards when they build the building, and they cut corners to make more money.”

Poor Controls

He also blames companies looking only for the cheapest supplier. Factories with poor controls on safety or child labour are easy to spot, if retailers decide to look, he said. Tell-tale signs include loose wiring and fire exits that are either half-built or blocked.

“These factories thrive because they offer a cheap, cheap price,” Strandlund said. “If you’re only looking for price, yes, you will let these things go on.”

Textiles contribute more than 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s gross domestic product and about 80 per cent of exports in the nation that’s about the size of Montana and where one in three of its 163 million people are under 15 years old.

The Bangladeshi government has neither the resources, nor the willpower to enforce regulations, said Richard Pearshouse, a Geneva-based senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. In the Dhaka area, 18 inspectors and sub-inspectors oversee an estimated 100,000 factories, according to an October report by the non-profit watchdog. “The number of inspectors is woefully inadequate,” Pearshouse said via telephone. “There is a tendency to prioritize good relations with the owners, so there are very few unannounced inspections.”

‘Light Fines’

Penalties for offences are often “very light fines,” said Pearshouse, who recently studied conditions at leather tanneries in Dhaka.

The company that owns Rana Plaza didn’t get permission from the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, Dhaka’s development authority, to erect the building, said Sheik Abdul Mannan, a planning member of the authority. It instead got permission from the Savar Municipal Corporation, which has different building standards, he said.

Rana Plaza was designed as a six-story building and the owners subsequently added two more floors, Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association, said in a phone interview from Dhaka.

There were 3,122 people employed at the factories in total, but it was unclear how many of them were in the building at the time of the collapse, he said.

“It is clear from visiting the site that they had violated several construction codes, especially the design code,” Sheik Abdul Mannan, a member of the city development authority, said in a phone interview from Dhaka. “I saw the materials used in the columns and the material used for the rest of the building and it was completely substandard.”

Caged In

Rahima was trapped. The pillars around her had collapsed. The building itself had collapsed. She was caged in by mangled rods, concrete.

Four more workers were caught alongside her. An hour went by, and nobody came to help.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Rahima said. She wept.

From desperation came bravery. Less than half a kilometre away, her family waited in the tin-roofed hut down an alley. Her husband, Nazrul Islam; her daughter; a single bed; a small television; clothes hanging along a line. Home.

“My life cannot end like this,” she remembers thinking. “I have to get out of here.”

Suddenly Sunlight

All around her was debris. She dug, and then, suddenly, sunlight. One by one, the five survivors climbed through the hole. Bruised, her hands and leg covered with cuts, her back and chest hurting, Rahima climbed out of the wreckage. By then, hundreds had died, and many more were still buried.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said.

She is. At 2.30 a.m., 46 bodies, their faces, legs and hands covered with bruises and cuts lay in the hallways of a school five minutes from the hospital. Frantic relatives roam the hallways, looking at one dead person, then the next, searching for a familiar face. So far, 92 dead had been claimed by their families.

Nearby, in Dhaka, several thousand protesters demanded the arrests of the owners of the building, identified by the Bangladesh High Court as Sohel Rana in a summons for negligence.

At the school, though, more bodies keep arriving.

“I am not sure when the corpses will stop coming,” said Aminur Rahman, a police officer from the Savar Model Police Station. “Nobody knows.”

— With assistance from Adi Narayan in Mumbai, Liza Lin in Shanghai and Sarah Shannon and Oliver Staley in London.

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