Surviving hell in a Bangladesh factory collapse

Updated: 04/30/2013 3:05 AM KSTP.com

(AP) SAVAR, Bangladesh - Merina was so tired. It had been three days since the garment factory where she worked had collapsed around her, three days since she’d moved more than a few inches. In that time she’d had nothing to eat and just a few sips of water. The cries for help had long since subsided. The moans of the injured had gone silent.

It was fatigue she feared the most. If sleep took her, Merina was certain she would never wake up.

"I can’t fall asleep," the 21-year-old thought to herself, her face inches from a concrete slab that had once been the ceiling above her. She’d spent seven years working beneath that ceiling, sewing T-shirts and pants destined for stores from Paris to Los Angeles. She worked 14 hours a day, six days a week, with her two sisters. She made the equivalent of about $16 a week.

Now she lay on her back in the sweltering heat, worrying for her sisters and herself. And as the bodies of her former coworkers began to rot, the stench filled the darkness.

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The eight-story, concrete-and-glass Rana Plaza was one of hundreds of similar buildings in the crowded, potholed streets of Savar, an industrial suburb of Bangladesh’s capital and the center of the country’s $20 billion garment industry. If Bangladesh remains one of the world’s poorest nations, it is no longer a complete economic cripple. Instead, it turned its poverty to its advantage, heralding workers who make some of the world’s lowest wages and attracting some of the world’s leading brands.

But this same economic miracle has plunged Bangladesh into a vicious descending spiral of keeping down costs, as major retailers compete for customers who want ever cheaper clothes. It is the workers who often pay the price in terms of safety and labor conditions.

The trouble at Rana Plaza began Tuesday morning, when workers spotted long cracks in at least one of the building’s concrete pillars. The trails of chipped plaster led to a chunk of concrete, about the size of a shoe box, that had broken away. The police were called. Inspectors came to check on the building, which housed shops on the lower floors and five crowded clothing factories on the upper ones.

At 10 a.m., the 3,200 garment workers were told to leave early for lunch. At 2 p.m., they were told to leave for the day. Few of the workers _ mostly migrants from desperately poor villages _ asked why. Some were told the building had unexplained electricity issues.

The best factory buildings are well-constructed and regularly inspected. The workers are trained what to do in case of an emergency.

Rana Plaza was not one of those buildings. The owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, was a feared neighborhood political enforcer who had branched into real estate. In 2010, he was given a permit to build a five-story building on a piece of land that had once been a swamp. He built eight stories.

Rana came quickly after the crack was found. So did the police, some reporters and officials from the country’s largest garment industry association.

Rana refused to close the building. "There is nothing serious," he said. The workers were told to return the next morning, as scheduled, at 8 a.m.

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Merina, a petite woman with a round, girlish face and shoulder-length hair, never saw the crack.

She comes from Biltala, a tiny village in southwest Bangladesh, where there is electricity but little else. Her father is a landless laborer who grows rice and wheat on rented farmland, and, when he can, travels the seven hours by train to Dhaka to sell cucumbers, cauliflower and other vegetables on the street. When she was 15, she moved to Dhaka. Some of her aunts were already working in garment factories, and she quickly had a job.

For millions of Bangladeshis, the garment factories of Dhaka are a dream. Every year, at least 300,000 rural residents _ and perhaps as many as 500,000 _ migrate to the Dhaka area, already one of the most crowded cities on the planet.

Poverty remains the norm across most of rural Bangladesh, where less than 60 percent of adults are literate. To them, the steady wage of a garment factory _ even with minimum wage less than $40 a month _ is enough to start saving up for a scooter, or a dowry, or a better school for the next generation.

Merina’s two sisters joined her in Savar, where women make up the vast majority of the factory workers. Here, the poor learn quickly that it is not their role to question orders. And girls learn quickly that nearly all decisions are made by men.

So for a woman like Merina, who like many Bangladeshis goes by one name, there are generations of culture telling her not to question a command to go back to work.

When some factory workers did speak up Wednesday morning, they were reminded that the end of the month _ and their paychecks _ was near. The message was clear: If you don’t work, you won’t get paid.

"Don’t speak bullshit!" a factory manager told a 26-year-old garment worker named Shama, she said, when she worried about going inside. "There is no problem."

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Around 8:40 a.m. Wednesday, when the factories had been running for 40 minutes or so, the lights suddenly went off in the building. It was nothing unusual. Bangladesh’s electricity network is poorly maintained and desperately overburdened. Rana Plaza, like most of the factories in the area, had its own backup generator, sometimes used dozens of times in a single day.

A jolt went through the building when the generator kicked on. Again, this was nothing unusual. Eighteen-year-old Baezid was chatting with a friend as they checked an order of short-sleeved shirts.

He’d come from the countryside with his family _ mother, father and two uncles _ just seven months earlier. Since then, he’d worked seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to midnight. His salary was about $55 a month. But he could more than double that by working so many hours, since overtime pays .37 cents an hour.

Sometime after the generator switched on _ perhaps a few moments later, perhaps a few minutes _ another, far larger, jolt shook the floor violently. The building gave a deafening groan.

The pillars fell first, and one slammed against Baezid’s back. He was knocked to the floor, and found himself pinned from the waist down, unable to move.

He heard coworkers crying in the darkness. One coworker trapped nearby had a mobile phone, and the seven or eight people nearby took turns to call their families.

Baezid wept into the phone. "`Rescue me!’" he begged them.

Like a young boy, he kept thinking of his mother. He wanted to see her again.

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In Bangladesh, people in need of help rarely think first of the police, or firefighters, or anyone else official.

Baezid called his family. So did many other people. The state is so dysfunctional here, so riven by corruption and bad pay and incompetence, that ordinary people know they have a better chance of finding help by reaching out to their families. Often, they simply call out for the help of whoever will come.

Until Monday, when there was no hope left for survivors and heavy equipment was brought in to move tons of concrete, many of the rescuers working inside the rubble were volunteers. They were garment workers, or relatives of the missing. Or, in the case of Saiful Islam Nasar, they were just a guy from a small town who heard people needed help.

Nasar, a lanky mechanical engineer from a town about 300 kilometers (185 miles) away, runs a small volunteer association. They get no funding and have no training. They buy their supplies themselves. For the most part, the group offers first aid to people who have been in car accidents. During the monsoon rains, they help whoever they can as the waters rise around the town.

When he saw the news, Nasar gathered 50 men, jumped on a train and reached Rana Plaza about 11 hours after the collapse.

He made his way into the rubble with a hammer and a hacksaw, by the light of his mobile phone. In six days, he says he has rescued six people, and helped carry out dozens of bodies.

That first night, he slept on the roof of the collapsed building. Then for two nights he slept in a field, and now he has a tent. But he can’t sleep much anyway, because the images of all the corpses keep running through his head.

Told that he was a hero, he looked back silently.

Then he wept.

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Merina was sitting at her knitting machine on the fourth floor, in the Phantom TAC factory, when the world seemed to explode.

She jumped to her feet and tried to run for the door, but pieces of the ceiling slammed down on her. She crawled in search of a place to hide, and found one: a section of the upstairs floor had crashed onto two toppled pillars, creating a small protected area. About 10 other men and women had the same idea, including Sabina, a close friend. The two women clutched hands and wept, thinking their lives would end in a concrete tomb. "We’re going to die, we’re going to die," they said to each other.

The group could barely move in the tiny space. Merina’s yellow salwar kameez was drenched with sweat. The air was putrid with the smell of death.

As time passed, desperately thirsty survivors began drinking their own urine. One person found a fallen drum of water used for ironing and passed around what was left in a bottle cap. Merina sipped gratefully.

She kept thinking of her sisters, who shared a single bed with her in a corrugated tin-roofed room near the factory.

Her sisters, though, had been luckier.

Merina’s older sister, Sharina, ran out just in time. She turned around to watch the building she had toiled in for years fold onto itself in an instant.

"I must be no longer on this earth," she thought, her hands covering her ears from the deafening boom. After a frantic search, she found 16-year-old Shewli, who had also escaped. But where was Merina? She borrowed a cell phone and called her father in their village. "I managed to escape, but Merina is still trapped," she told him.

Their parents booked tickets on the next train to Dhaka.

They arrived Thursday morning, joining hundreds of other relatives who had thronged to the scene. Merina’s mother prayed hard, promising God a devotional offering _ a valuable gift from this rural family _ if Merina got out alive.

"If you save the life of my daughter, I will sacrifice a goat for you," she promised.

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On Friday, Merina finally began to hear the sounds of rescuers cutting through the slab above her with concrete saws.

"Save us! Save us!" she and Sabina yelled together. But by the time the rescuers reached her Saturday morning, she was disoriented and barely conscious. She was put in an ambulance and people surrounded her. "Where are you taking me?" she asked them. "What happened?"

"Don’t be afraid, you’re going to the hospital," someone told her.

Merina was taken to the Enam Medical College Hospital, a bare-bones facility with aged, rusted beds, dirty tile floors and bare concrete walls. After everything that happened, she had emerged with just bumps on her head and a sore back from lying in the same constrained position for so long. Baezid woke up in the same hospital, relatively unhurt except for a huge bruise from the pillar, which had turned his back almost black.

At least 386 people died, and the toll is climbing. Building owner Rana has been arrested.

On Saturday, as Merina lay on her side resting, her mother stroked her hair, fed her and rubbed her back. Tears rolled down Merina’s face, and she squeezed her father’s hand.

That night, Merina slept fitfully, replaying the ordeal in her mind. She woke with a new conviction. "God has given me a second life," Marina said later, speaking from her hospital bed. "When I’ve recovered, I will return home and I will never work in a garment factory again." Baezid said the same thing: He’d never go back to the garment factories.

Many survivors, though, will return. The choices are just too few.

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Baezid’s two uncles also worked in Rana Plaza. The three went to the factories together last Wednesday.

The two uncles have not been seen since. They are presumed dead.

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Sullivan reported from New Delhi, India.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)