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Surviving hell in a Bangladesh factory collapse

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"Don’t speak bullshit!" a factory manager told a 26-year-old garment worker named Sharma, 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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