By Tom Watkins and Farid Ahmed, Dhaka, Bangladesh (CNN) — Rescuers had drilled Friday to what had been the basement garage of the nine-story building that collapsed here last month only to find that it was filled with water and held no survivors, Lt. Col. Moazzem Hossain said Saturday.
But the disappointment did not last.
The late-afternoon operation had opened a hole in another part of the mound above what remained of the second floor, which had been filled with shops, he said. Perhaps alerted by the light, someone inside stuck a stick through the hole.
“When I was cutting iron rods, suddenly I found a silver-colored stick just moving from a hole, and I looked through and I saw someone calling, ‘Please save me,’ ” rescue worker Mohammad Rubel Rana told Reuters. “Then instantly I called the army and firefighters and said, ‘Please look, I heard a sound.’ Then they saw her and confirmed that there was a woman.”
Hossain then went into action.
“I told her, mother, don’t be afraid, we are here to rescue you,” Hossain said, according to Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS), the state-run news agency. “Would you like to drink water?”
A second hole was drilled by hand, to ensure that no sparks from a machine could ignite a fire, as occurred during a previous failed rescue attempt, he told CNN in a telephone interview.
The hole — a crescent about 1.5-feet long and 1-foot wide — revealed Reshma, a 19-year-old garment worker, wife and mother in cramped quarters on the floor about 7 feet down.
At 5-foot, 7-inches and 143 pounds, Hossain was just able to slide down into the darkness, where Reshma was standing.
“The first word was, ‘Save me, save me,’ ” he said. “She was very afraid, she was hyper-panicked you can say,” he said. Hossain tried to calm her. “We are here,” he told her. “We are not going until we save you.”
Hossain then lifted the woman into the opening, from which other rescuers completed the job.
“I was just lying down in a sloping manner up to the hole and then I was pushing her body over my body so that she can just go up.”
At 4:26 p.m., once she had been lifted to safety, Reshma erupted in tears, Hossain said. “She was very thankful to my team; this cry was the happiest cry she had.”
Hundreds of onlookers erupted in cheers.
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Hossain credited the fact that both he and the woman are thin with the success of the operation, given that there was little space available to widen the hole. “That was the luckiest part,” he said. “Otherwise, the operation would have been very difficult.”
Hossain said the trapped woman had enough room to stand and to sit, but not enough room to lie down during her more-than 16 days of confinement.
She and her family were not the only ones who were happy. Hossain’s children were watching on TV they told him “my mama was crying,” he said, adding that he was still focused on the recovery and hoped that more survivors would emerge.
After being given water and biscuits, Reshma was placed on a stretcher, put into an ambulance and whisked to Combined Military Hospital in Savar, the suburb of the capital city, Dhaka, where the building collapsed.
There, video showed her lying in bed, a nurse at either side connecting intravenous drips to her arms and a third nurse at the head of her bed. Whenever she raised her head to see what was going on, the nurse in the middle would gently push it back to the pillow and stroke her hair.
“She is fine now,” said Capt. Ibrahim Islam, a Bangladeshi military official.
Reshma told her rescuers that she survived on dry food and water that had been tossed into the rubble in the first days after the collapse, BSS reported.
“I ate biscuits and water,” she told rescuers. “But the stock dwindled two days ago.”
She told doctors at the military hospital in Savar that she was wracked by thirst for the last two days of her saga, all of which was spent in the dark between floors that had pancaked in the collapse.
The rescued woman’s mother-in-law, Ayesha, said she was overjoyed.
“I have not seen her yet, but I am very happy that she is alive,” Ayesha said. “At least my grandchildren got their mother back. All my grandchildren are now overwhelmed.”
The news spread widely and rapidly; within minutes, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina phoned the unlikely survivor and asked about her condition, then flew by helicopter to visit her.
“It’s an unprecedented incident,” she said afterward, according to BSS.
The news agency said Reshma is from northern Bangladesh’s Dinajpur district. She was working as a swing operator for Phantom Garment, which had a factory in the Rana Plaza when it collapsed on April 24.
In addition to the water sprayed over the mound early after the disaster, water may have trickled to the second floor from recent rains, or from fire hoses employed when firefighters extinguished the blaze that erupted during the failed rescue attempt.
The rescue, which came on the same day that officials raised the death toll from the collapse by 30 to 1,043, represented a ray of cheer against an otherwise grim tableau.
The building had held thousands of people, many of them garment workers.
Though rescue workers had pulled more than 2,400 others to safety, 10 days had elapsed since anyone had been found alive.
Since then, efforts have focused on retrieving corpses from the heap of broken concrete over which bulldozers and cranes have been used to speed the cleanup. But Hossain said use of the heavy equipment is limited to areas that recovery experts are certain hold no people.
Many of the bodies have been so decomposed that authorities have struggled to identify them.
“We are near the end,” Islam said.
The owners of the building and the factories are under investigation over accusations they ordered workers to enter the building on the day of the collapse despite cracks that appeared in the structure the day before.
The Bangladeshi government has faced criticism for failing to tighten safety standards in the country’s thousands of garment factories, where millions of people work.
The Savar building collapsed five months after a fire at a garment factory near Dhaka killed more than 100 people. And on Wednesday, eight people died in a fire at another factory in the area.
The European Union has threatened to take trade action against Bangladesh if it doesn’t improve health and safety conditions for workers.
Western retailers and clothing brands that get their products from Bangladeshi factories are also under pressure to subject their supply chains to greater scrutiny.
The smell of death continues to permeate the area, prompting people passing by on a nearby highway to cover their noses. Recovery workers combing through the debris use face masks to block the stench.
Hundreds of people looking for their missing relatives have been waiting by the nearby school where bodies are taken to be identified.
Authorities have sent some of the remains to a Dhaka hospital for DNA testing, BSS reported. Those that remain unidentified are buried.
The industrial disaster here is among the worst ever, ranking behind the 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India, which the Indian government said killed more than 15,000 people, many of whom were residents rather than workers.
In his 2008 book “Understanding Global Security,” Peter Hough, a senior lecturer in international politics at Middlesex University in Britain, lists just 2,500 deaths in Bhopal, but said Thursday that that number included only fatalities just after the incident.
After Bhopal, he cited 1,549 deaths in a 1942 mining disaster in Hineiko, China; 1,082 deaths in a 1998 oil pipeline fire in Nigeria; and 1,060 in a 1906 mining explosion in Courrieres, France.
Though it is too late for the Bangladesh incident to be included in the soon-to-be-published third edition of his book, the building collapse will doubtless enter history books, he said.
“It’s a classic case of a developing country being prepared to cut corners to feed a demand via globalization,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’m sure it will be seen alongside other notable disasters. It is already up there in the top five.”
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