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At building collapse site, horror mixes with humanity

Story highlights

  • Days after factory collapse, rescue efforts hampered by lack of equipment
  • Families waiting for loved ones are growing desperate
  • Volunteers risking their lives to rescue victims under the rubble

More than 72 hours into the Savar disaster, rescuers shout for help, drilling machines rattle, the ambulance sirens wail and people cry aloud for their missing relatives, colleagues and friends.

Inside, the rescue workers with no modern equipment to carry out the rescue are struggling to find survivors in the rubble of an eight-story building.

One of the rescue workers who had been working for the last three days fainted and had to be moved to a hospital. An army officer was trapped inside when he went deep into the holes to look for survivors. He had been behaving abnormally since being exposed to the mutilated bodies and the stench of blood.

Rescuers from the fire service department, army and hundreds of volunteers have been struggling to find survivors who remained trapped. The death toll has already risen above 300, according to last official count and appeared to increase every hour with around 600 people missing and suspected to be under the debris.

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According to government statement, around 3,000 people have been rescued. Due to lack of proper equipment and the rubble, locating survivors has become next to impossible and often slow rescue, a slow work.

"Our main concern for the moment is to find the survivors," one of the rescue workers told a local TV channel. "We can think about the dead bodies later on."

Around 3,500 workers were inside the building which had apparel factories, a bank and several other shops when Bangladesh's worst industrial accident took place. Savar, a sub-district which is about 45 kilometers from the capital Dhaka, is a place where many clothing factories were built in the last decade. Most of the workers come from all over the country and are paid minimum wage, according to labor rights activists.

Meanwhile, hundreds of relatives of the victims gather to the Adhar Chandra School where the bodies are kept. People with photos of their relatives, mostly workers of the apparel factories, are asking officials for help.

Whenever an ambulance arrived to the spot, people rushed to see if it was of their loved ones.

"These people, they are on the verge of a breakdown," an official said, who had been handing over the bodies to their relatives. "I have never seen such a situation in my life."

The stench of the corpses made the air heavy with people desperately looking for their relatives. A temporary control room had been set up close to the site of the disaster to provide the distressed families with information.

Selina is one of those waiting for the last 48 hours for her cousin Momtaz. She is a worker at a different garment factory and used to live in a rented house with Momtaz who has been missing since the incident. Selina frantically looked everywhere -- from hospitals to the morgue, asking survivors whether they had seen Momtaz, but nobody could help her.

"We came to Savar a year ago from Jessore. What am I going to tell her parents if she is dead?" Selina said. Thousands others like her who have come across the country.

Things are no different at the local Enam Medical College Hospital where thousands of survivors have been treated. The blood shortage is acute and the hospital authority is urging people to donate for the victims. There is also a shortage of medicine. The local military hospital is also treating patients. Many have been sent to Dhaka for treatment. According to newspaper reports, one-third of the patients are severely injured and face a long recovery.

There are more stories from survivors, mostly women in their mid-twenties, who remained under the mangled building for hours -- wounded and without food and water. They saw their friends and colleagues succumb to their injuries and they could do nothing about it.

One female worker was saved after more than 45 hours, but at a heavy price. She was trapped under a machine. After failing to pull her hand out, the rescue workers had to saw it off to free her. She is now undergoing treatment at a local hospital.

But rescue workers are struggling with the lack of modern equipment. Although donations of medicine, food and water are being sent, they're not enough.

A group of people were seen holding placards asking for water, oxygen cylinders and torch lights. On Friday evening, announcements were made in loudspeakers asking for fuel for generators. Without them, the rescue work would come to a halt.

Those who are found to be alive, but can't be rescued due to lack of equipment, are sent water, food and in some cases, oxygen tanks. But as time goes by, the hope for finding more survivors has been fading.

In this time of crisis, volunteers have been working with the army and fire brigade rescue workers since the first day. They help carry the survivors to hospitals, pave the way for ambulances and other equipment to enter the site, and donate blood and medicine for the victims.

Without safety gear or training to handle such crisis, volunteers, mainly students, garment workers and local youths risk their lives to go inside the debris and pull people out.

In Dhaka, special booths were set where people are donating blood for the victims.

"I have never seen people so enthusiastically helping each other in times of disaster," said Piplu Khan, a media activist who has been helping the rescue efforts from the first day with generator and search lights. "You can imagine it's an impossible task to rescue people with almost no equipment. It's just the emotion of common people who are brave enough to enter inside the rubble with zero gear and rescue people out."

Like him, lots of young activists have come forward in the rescue work in one hand and donating blood and medicine on the other. Social media sites have also been abuzz with people calling to unite and help the victims.

Meanwhile, the long wait for the missing persons is resulting in anger and frustration. On Friday, there was a mob attack for the alleged delay in the rescue process. The huge crowd is also creating hindrances for the rescue mission. The frustration is turning into anger.

Already protesters are demanding punishment of the culprits and speedier rescue work. Fearing the situation might deteriorate, all garment factories in Savar and adjacent areas have been closed. Reports of cracks being noticed in other factory buildings are fueling more fear and anger among workers.

It remains unclear when the whole rescue operation will be called off. With so many missing people and challenges in the rescue efforts, hope appears to be the only thing keeping the whole operation afloat.