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Surviving hell in a Bangladesh factory collapse

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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.

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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.

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


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 382 others 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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