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Hopes fade in Bangladesh disaster

29 April 2013, 09:00

Savar - Cranes began clearing the wreckage of a ruined garment factory complex in Bangladesh on Monday after the "last survivor" of the country's deadliest industrial disaster was killed by a fire.

As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina paid her first visit to the tangle of concrete which used to house an eight-storey compound of factories, leaders of the mammoth rescue effort said they did not expect to find any more people alive.

The confirmed number of dead currently stands at 381 according to the army, which has been overseeing the rescue effort.

But the toll is expected to shoot up now heavy lifting equipment is being used. Rescuers had earlier been wary of using anything but hand-held drills, over fears that machinery could force more masonry to collapse onto survivors.

"The rescue teams have stopped manual search of survivors," said military spokesperson Shahinul Islam. "Two big cranes have started work to clear big slabs. So far a slab weighing 12 tons has been removed. They will clear seven more slabs today."

Rescuers, who have been battling the stench of rotting corpses, were shattered by the death late on Sunday of a female garment worker who had clung to life against the odds before being overwhelmed by a fire at the scene.

Firefighters were seen weeping live on television after the widowed mother-of-one identified as Shahnaz, whose courageous struggle became a symbol of hope in the wake of the catastrophe, lost her battle.

Black smoke

"The fire broke out as we were cutting a beam to bring out what we believe was the last remaining survivor from the collapsed building. We managed to douse it, but as we came back we saw her dead," Ahmed Ali told AFP.

"She was a brave lady and fought until the end. We worked for 10-11 hours today just to try to bring her out alive. We took the challenge but we lost."

Three rescuers were also injured in the blaze, which was put out in a matter of minutes, fire service director Zihadul Islam said.

Firefighter Abul Khayer, who spoke to Shahnaz throughout the rescue attempt, said she had an 18-month-old son. "She clung on for the boy... She told me you're my brother, please don't leave me alone."

One of the leaders of the rescue operation said on Monday the emergency services would be "doing things very carefully" in case anyone else had somehow managed to stay alive since the building caved in at 09:00 on Wednesday.

"We started the second phase of work after assuming that there is no survivor," Brigadier General Ajmal Kabir told reporters.

It is not known how many people are trapped in the rubble and authorities have not released a list of names of the missing, although hundreds of relatives have gathered at the site, many clutching photos of their loved ones, awaiting news.

Black smoke could still be seen billowing from the ruins on Monday morning at the complex, which is just outside the capital Dhaka.

Poor safety conditions

The tragedy has once again focused attention on the poor safety conditions in the $20bn Bangladeshi garment industry, which is the world's second biggest after China, supplying many big Western clothing brands.

Britain's Primark and Spain's Mango have acknowledged their products were made in the block, while an AFP reporter found shirts labelled "United Colours of Benetton" in the debris.

The Italian group has denied having a supplier in the building.

Seven people have so far been arrested over the disaster, including the overall owner of the complex, property tycoon Sohel Rana, who was detained as he attempted to cross into India and was flown back to Dhaka.

Among the others also facing charges of causing "death by negligence" are two engineers who are alleged to have given the building the all-clear on Tuesday night after large cracks were found in the walls.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has promised to track down all those responsible for the disaster, visited some of the injured at the nearby Enam Medical College Hospital on Monday before heading to the disaster zone.

The accident has prompted fresh accusations from activists that Western firms place profit before safety by sourcing their products from a country where textile workers often earn less than $40 a month.

Protesters holding signs reading "Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops" and "Primark's Shame" picketed Primark's flagship store in London over the weekend.



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