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Bangladesh building collapse: An end to recovery efforts, a promise of a new start

By Saeed Ahmed and Leone Lakhani, CNN
June 14, 2013 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As recovery efforts end, the final death toll stands at 1,127
  • Another 2,438 people were rescued alive
  • On Tuesday, the army hands over the site to local authorities to complete the cleanup
  • "This building will stand a hundred years," owner boasted a day before collapse

Savar, Bangladesh (CNN) -- Across from the detritus of Bangladesh's deadliest industrial disaster, up four flights of narrow stairs and inside the makeshift offices of the recovery operations, stands a dry erase board that marks, in neat black handwriting, each life a nine-story building claimed when it pancaked to the ground last month.

On some days, as rescue workers pulled body after body from the mountain of steel and concrete, the number would spiral past 100.

On Monday, it settled at zero.

And so, after 20 days of non-stop digging, the army-led effort to pull out every last body from the ruins of Rana Plaza in the Dhaka suburb of Savar came to an end.

"We said we wouldn't stop until there were no more victims, and we didn't," said army Capt. Ibrahim Islam. "We are confident we have found them all."

Bangladeshi talks about surviving factory disaster

Members of the Bangladesh army pray at the site of the collapsed Rana Plaza in Savar near Dhaka on Tuesday, May 14. The army-led effort to search for bodies has ended nearly three weeks after the nine-story building collapsed. The final death toll stands at 1,127. Members of the Bangladesh army pray at the site of the collapsed Rana Plaza in Savar near Dhaka on Tuesday, May 14. The army-led effort to search for bodies has ended nearly three weeks after the nine-story building collapsed. The final death toll stands at 1,127.
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The tally stands at 1,127 dead and 2,438 rescued alive. But Islam is the first to admit that only God knows exactly how many occupants were inside the building when it came tumbling down April 24.

"We never were able to get a full accounting from the factory owners," Islam said, referring to the five garment factories housed in the building.

At least 98 people are still missing.

Another 59 bodies are at a morgue, waiting to be identified through DNA tests.

More than 230 bodies are unclaimed, prompting a civics group to bury them in a Dhaka cemetery.

And what of the three severed heads and four unattached limbs that are listed in red ink on the board?

But, in the last several days, the number of bodies had dwindled, Islam said.

And after recovery crews made their last rounds Monday -- combing through the flooded basement of the structure and finding no one -- they felt comfortable they had done their due diligence.

On Tuesday, the army handed over the site to local authorities to complete the cleanup. Mourners gathered one last time to remember the souls who perished and pray for those still missing.

In the crowd stood Rohima clutching a picture of her 18-year-old son, Azam Khan.

Rohima, who, like many women in Bangladesh, go by one name, said she'd urged Khan to stay at home that day. But he insisted. It was payday, he said.

That's the last she's seen of him. She's been to the morgue, to the hospitals, to the cemetery.

Around her, other mothers wailed and screamed. Some fell to the ground in tears; some fainted.

"We've prayed to Allah, begged him, cried to him," Rohima said. "But he won't give our children's bodies back. He won't."

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The scene

Early Tuesday morning, the yellow excavators that roared night and day, picking up tons of steel, fell silent.

People gathered and gawked at the yawning gap left in the cramped, congested skyline of Savar where the gargantuan plaza -- the size of a city block -- once stood.

"Aha re," the people shook their heads and tsked sympathetically. So sad.

"Shoitaner shoitan," they cursed. The devil's devil.

Their anger was directed at Sohel Rana, the building owner who dismissed concerns that the cracks on Rana Plaza made the structure unsound.

"This building will stand a hundred years," he boasted on April 23.

The next morning, it came down.

Rana, who fled after the disaster but was arrested trying to cross into India, is in police custody. He is a man so hated that even the most pacifist of Bangladeshis wish death upon him.

There was a time when fliers bearing his beaming face festooned the walls around Savar. They've now either been torn down or defaced.

"Kutta!" someone had scrawled on one.

Kutta, the Bengali word for dog.

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A cracked system

But, human rights activists say, if fingers are to be pointed, there are plenty of targets and plenty of blame to go around.

And in the next few days and months, Bangladeshis will have to acknowledge the rude reality that it wasn't just a cracked building; the deaths were as much a result of a cracked system.

The garment industry is a $20 billion-a-year money-generator for Bangladesh. Some 4,500 factories employ 3.6 million workers and account for 77% of the country's exports.

Deadly accidents and deplorable conditions are all too common, but pay is still a lure for many in this impoverished country, where the minimum wage is the equivalent of $38 a month.

And so, the workers continued to work. And the government continued to turn a blind eye to the disasters.

In the last decade, despite several other deadly accidents, no factory owner has faced charges in court.

Until now.

Changes afoot

The outrage over Savar has reached such a fever pitch that the government not only arrested Rana and the owners of the factories in the building, but it also said it will form a committee to raise the minimum wage of garment workers.

On Monday, the government went a step further. Bangladesh's Cabinet approved the draft of a law that will force factories to offer life insurance for workers.

Internationally, several clothiers signed on to a plan to help prevent fire and building collapses in Bangladesh. Among the clothiers are H&M and Inditex -- which owns the Spanish brand Zara -- and PVH, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

The five-year plan calls for independent safety inspections and for companies to publicly report the findings. It also requires retailers to help finance fire safety and building improvements in factories with which they work.

Companies who sign on will have to terminate business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety upgrades.

PVH is the only American company to sign on. A Wal-Mart spokesman said the world's largest retailer had nothing to announce right now. And Sears said it "assessing" the agreement.

"This is a crucial victory in the fight for companies to take responsibility for the workers who make our clothes," said Ruth Tanner with the charity War on Want.

"A tragedy like the Rana Plaza disaster cannot happen again."

But for many garment workers, it was a case of too little, too late.

In Ashuriya, a Dhaka suburb close to Savar, the garment trade group on Monday night shut down 100 factories indefinitely. Workers there had refused to work, citing safety fears.

"For the last 14 days, workers came to work, clocked in, walked out," said Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

"We decided, 'No work, no pay.'"

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The last survivor

Rana Plaza housed five garment factories, several shops and a bank.

The collapse occurred April 24, a day after cracks appeared in the structure. The bank ordered its employees not to report for work, and the shops were closed because of a strike.

But garment workers were told to come in despite their concerns that the building's structure was not sound.

The first few days after the collapse, rescue workers were buoyed by hope as many survivors emerged from the rubble.

But then, for days, nothing.

On Friday, their spirits got a boost when Reshma, 19, was pulled out alive after 17 harrowing days.

"I did not have any food to eat. I had four biscuits and some water in 17 days," she told reporters Monday as she recuperated at a military hospital.

"The people who were with me under the rubble died. I heard people screaming. 'Save me, save me,' they screamed. But I couldn't find them. I tried."

For 20 days, so did the rescuers above ground.

But Tuesday morning, they wiped the deaths off the dry erase board.

It was time for a clean start.

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CNNMoney's Emily Jane Fox contributed to this report.

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