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11 May, 2013
Bangladesh survivor Reshma Begum: I never dreamed I'd see daylight again
Rescue workers had given up hope of finding anyone else alive in the rubble of the Rana Plaza. Then they heard a faint tapping
Syed Zain Al-Mahmood and Saad Hammadi in Dhaka and Jason Burke The Guardian, Friday 10 May 2013 11.18 EDT
Reshma Begum is pulled out alive from the wreckage of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Dhaka, 17 days after the building collapsed. Photograph: EPA
First came the collapse. At 9am, as the day's work started, a ripping, tearing sound, clouds of choking dust, the screams of colleagues and finally silence. Then came fire, rain, and 16 long days in the darkness under the rubble, surrounded by the decaying corpses of her friends and colleagues. On Friday came hope.
Through the morning, Reshma Begum, a seamstress who worked on the second floor of the Rana Plaza in a suburb of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, heard rescuers close by. But none heard her.
"I heard voices of the rescue workers. I kept hitting the wreckage with sticks and rods to attract their attention," she told reporters from a hospital bed.
At about 3pm, Abdur Razzaq, an army sergeant deployed to help search the 7,000 tonnes of rubble that was all that remained of the Rana Plaza, picked up the faint sound of metallic tapping. "I heard the sound and rushed towards the spot. I knelt down and heard a faint voice. 'Sir, please help me,' she cried," Razzaq told the Guardian.
The woman had been breathing through a pipe from inside the wreckage, Razzaq said, and had sustained no serious injury.
The collapse of the factory, in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Dhaka, prompted widespread criticism of local authorities, employers and international retailers such as Britain's Primark, which were supplied with clothes by businesses run from its upper floors.
About two-thirds of the more than 3,000 workers in the building managed to flee. But as many as 1,500 may have been buried by rubble. With an official death toll standing at 1,050, relatives and rescue workers had given up hope of finding anyone else alive.
"We were removing slabs," said Lt Col S M Imran-Uz-Zaman, an army spokesman at the site. "We immediately halted work in all other areas and focused on the rescue."
Razzaq said he heard Reshma's tapping after bulldozers lifted rubble covering the spot. Rescuers saw her standing in the gap between a beam of concrete and the slab.
"When I flashed the torchlight I saw a lot of space and she was walking," said Monwar, a worker at the site.
Daily life in much of the capital ground to a halt as Dhaka's inhabitants watched the rescue unfold live on local television.
Tensions were high. An earlier attempt to rescue a woman found in the debris more than 100 hours after the building collapsed went disastrously wrong when sparks from a grinder ignited a fire, killing her and fatally burning a rescue worker.
For an hour, workers used light hammers, drills and saws to remove rods and concrete blocks. Others prayed. Eventually a military engineer was able to climb into the space where Reshma had spent two weeks.
Then, to cheers of "God is great!", the young woman, with the pink scarf she had worn to work more than two weeks ago around her shoulders, was eased out and on to a stretcher. Rescue workers were seen wiping tears as an ambulance drew away, taking the young woman to a military hospital nearby.
Begum told rescuers she had survived by scavenging for biscuits in the rucksacks of dead colleagues and drinking rainwater. "No one heard me. It was so bad for me. I never dreamed I'd see the daylight again," she told the private Somoy TV from her hospital bed.
She told the channel she had lived on dried food for 15 days. "There was some dried food around me. 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."
Reshma's mother and sister, Asma, were reported to have rushed to the hospital to meet her.
Army officers co-ordinating the rescue said they were astonished by the woman's strength. "It is incredible that someone could have survived in the wreckage 408 hours after the building came down," said army officer Shah Jamal. "Her will to live is amazing."
Nine people have been arrested in connection with the disaster, including the owner of the Rana Plaza and owners of the factories it housed.
Several major western retailers were being supplied by factories based in the building. Primark and its Canadian counterpart, Loblaw, have announced they will compensate the victims of the disaster, the world's worst industrial accident since the Bhopal gas leak in India in 1984.
Primark said last night: "A further comprehensive programme covering the immediate and long-term needs of the survivors and the dependants of the deceased is also being finalised. This programme will include medical and occupational rehabilitation. Food packages provided by Primark are continuing to be distributed to some 750 households on a weekly basis, rising to 1,000 households or more if necessary as soon as possible. This programme will continue for as long as needed."
The government has blamed the owners and builders of the eight-storey complex for using shoddy construction materials, including substandard rods, bricks and cement, and not obtaining the necessary clearances.
It has emerged that the building was constructed on swampy land. Four storeys were built between 2007 and 2008, with a further four added later. A ninth floor was under construction at the time of the collapse.
The building had developed cracks the day before but worried workers were forced to remain inside by managers who threatened to dock their pay of around £30 a month. When massive generators were switched on when power went off – a frequent occurrence in electricity-starved Dhaka – the building collapsed.
There have been a series of deadly accidents in Bangladesh's garment industry, which accounts for 80% of the country's exports and employs about 4 million people, including a fire in November in which 114 people died. A fire killed eight people at another garment factory in Dhaka this week.
More than 100 more bodies were found in the rubble of the Rana Plaza on Friday. Most are so decomposed that physical recognition is impossible.
Deep anger at both authorities and employers remains. Garment workers demonstrated for better conditions in the aftermath of the disaster and clashed with police. But all welcomed yesterday's news.
"God is amazing," said Julekha, a 31-year-old garment worker in Savar. "Our supervisor told us that a woman was rescued from the rubble. I later watched her on television. Everyone in our workplace was surprised. It's a little happiness amid all the sorrows that we have been filled with in the last so many days."