By JULFIKAR ALI MANIK and JIM YARDLEY
Somalilandsun — Day after day, the grim drudgery of digging for bodies had progressed at Rana Plaza. Talk of rescuing survivors had faded. This was the recovery phase, and what was being recovered were corpses, the numbers spinning remorselessly forward: 700 dead became 800, then 900, with no end in sight.
By Friday morning, the number had pushed above 1,000. And then, late in the afternoon, a soldier from the Bangladeshi Army, standing atop the rubble of the wrecked building, noticed an iron rod that seemed to be moving. There was a noise, a voice. Rescuers hurriedly carved a hole through a concrete pillar. Television stations in Bangladesh cut to the scene: a woman, gasping, was alive in the wreckage, nearly 17 full days after Rana Plaza had collapsed.
A new number was announced: One. A female garment worker named Reshma. A survivor. A miracle.
“Save me!” rescuers heard her shout, before they pulled her into the afternoon light, her face powdered in dust as she was placed on a stretcher.
The Rana Plaza collapse is now considered the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. Five factories were operating inside the building when the structure pancaked downward. The carnage was horrific and has focused global attention on unsafe conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories that make clothing for North American and European consumers — especially since there were advance warnings that the structure was unsafe.
The rescue of Reshma, as described by rescuers and government officials, has offered a temporary respite from the gloom and a startling tale of resilience: she survived in an opening maybe 10 feet by 8 feet in size, high enough for her to stand, within a penumbra of collapsed beams and pillars. Air trickled through the crevices. She found enough food and water to last until two days ago.
“I never dreamed I’d see the daylight again,” she told local Somoy TV from her hospital bed, according to news accounts.
Reaction in Bangladesh was euphoric. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rushed to the military hospital where Reshma had been taken. Twelve days earlier, on April 28, rescuers had worked desperately to save another woman, Shaheena, who was then thought to be the last survivor. But she died after a fire broke out in the final hour of the rescue operation.
Reshma’s rescue, if amazing, is not without precedent. More than two weeks after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a 16-year-old girl was discovered inside a collapsed home, having survived by eating yogurt and vegetables, and a man was found in the rubble of Port-au-Prince many days after that. But experts say such incidents are extremely rare.
At Rana Plaza, recovery crews had little hope of finding a survivor when work began on Friday. A five-member army rescue team had begun using heavy machinery to crack into an area of the building’s basement but found it flooded with water. As they worked from the first floor, searching for the source of water, they noticed a movement.
“Suddenly we saw the movement of a stick,” Major M. M. Moazzem Hossain, a member of the team, said in an interview. “Someone from the second floor was trying to draw attention by inserting a stick through a narrow hole. When we reached there, we asked, ‘Is there anyone inside? “
A female voice shouted out, “Save me!”
Major Hossain said the woman had told him her name was Reshma.
“We are with you,” he said he had told her. “We will not move out from this place without rescuing you.”
Now the soldiers and a group of firefighters began cutting a hole, using a hand drill and hammers, to try to reach her. “We were aware of the tragic accident during the operation to rescue Shaheena,” he said. “So we were very careful.”
For an hour, they kept cutting, making a hole about a foot and a half in diameter. Major Hossain said he squeezed through the hole and helped bring Reshma out. Startled, gazing curiously into the sunlight, Reshma was placed on a stretcher and taken immediately to the military hospital.
It is unclear exactly where in the factory she had been trapped, especially since the floors were compressed together after the collapse. Some officials have said she was inside the basement, though Rezaul Karim, deputy director of the Bangladesh Fire Service, said it was more likely she had been on either the first or second floor.
“We found her in the middle of these two floors,” he said.
Initially, some officials said she had been discovered inside a Muslim prayer room but those accounts now appear to be wrong, Officer Karim said.
Instead, she found refuge in an unusually large space created by falling beams and pillars. Many survivors had been trapped in crawl spaces barely two feet high. But Reshma was in a space large enough for her to stand, sleep and walk, Major Hossain said. She also had found water and food, though her food apparently became rotten and inedible two days ago. Garment workers usually bring their lunches and it is possible she was trapped in an area where lunches had been stored.
“Reshma was quite strong, and there was adequate oxygen,” he added. “We only gave her juice and water.”
The Rana Plaza death toll, now at 1,053, has been rising quickly in recent days, and will probably keep climbing. Located in an industrial suburb of Dhaka, Rana Plaza exemplified many of safety problems plaguing the garment industry in Bangladesh, the world’s second-leading garment exporter, trailing only China.
The authorities in Bangladesh now say the building was illegally constructed, with permits obtained through political influence. The owner, Sohel Rana, now in jail, was illegally adding upper floors to the structure at the time the building collapsed, officials said.
The accident has intensified pressure on global brands and retailers that buy clothing from factories in Bangladesh to improve worker safety. In November, at least 112 workers died in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory, which was producing clothing for Sears, Walmart and other global brands and retailers. Earlier this week, a smaller factory fire killed at least eight people.
The Rana Plaza disaster led to nationwide mourning in Bangladesh as well as outrage because it appears that the accident could have been averted. A day before the collapse, an engineer examined cracks in the structure and warned Mr. Rana, as well as owners of the garment factories, that the building was unsafe and should be closed. Instead, workers were told to come to their factories the next morning.
For now, though, a sliver of joy has been found in the wreckage, with the name of Reshma.
Julfikar Ali Manik reported from Dhaka, and Jim Yardley from New Delhi.