Beyond the rubble: One year after Rana Plaza collapse, Bangladesh is still reeling



Emily Judem

Editor's Note: This is the first piece in a three-part series that goes inside Bangladesh's garment industry to explore how the Rana Plaza collapse served as a wake-up call to an entire global supply chain and how Bangladesh is working furiously to reform itself before another tragedy strikes.

SAVAR, Bangladesh — Stepping onto the pile of collapsed brick and twisted steel that once made up the nine stories of Rana Plaza, the eyes immediately begin to sweep the bright, tattered rags for tags bearing the names of familiar brands that sourced garments from the five factories that rented space in the building's upper floors.

The instinct is quickly followed by the thought that the gaze would be much better utilized ensuring a body isn't underfoot.

Though a year has passed since the building's collapse, killing 1,129 people, the impulse is not unfounded. In the absence of an official, coordinated effort, the work of recovering the bodies is still not complete. The infrequent breeze carries with it the stench of rotting flesh, compounded by the overwhelming pre-monsoon April heat. Skulls continue to be pulled from the rubble by people combing the piles of wreckage for steel rebar to sell at nearby stalls.

One year later, what little is left of Rana Plaza sits in three large piles in the field just behind where the building once stood. Yet the shadow of the Rana Plaza collapse continues to loom large over Bangladesh, its people and its garment industry, and many of the victims of this tragedy are still wrestling with the scars of that day.


April 23, 2013

At 9:30 a.m., Rubi Ahkter, a sewing supervisor at New Wave Bottoms, was working on the third floor of Rana Plaza, located in Savar, Bangladesh, on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital city. She discovered a large crack in one of the building's support pillars.
After her warning was ignored by the factory manager, Rubi raised her concerns to the equipment manager, who convinced the management to investigate.

At 10 a.m. the building was evacuated. It remained closed for the remainder of the day while it was inspected by the owner, Sohel Rana, and an engineer.

Rana Plaza was originally designed to be a five-story building but had been expanded by adding three floors atop the original foundation with no structural reinforcement, multiple sources said.


April 24, 2013

The day of the disaster, word had spread that an engineer had declared the building safe and that workers were required to return to work. Even though the shops and bank on the bottom floors remained closed, the factories inhabiting the top five floors insisted on reopening. It was nearing the end of the month and orders needed to ship to meet buyers’ deadlines around the world.

Many workers were told that if they missed a day's work, they would lose an entire month's pay. Even with overtime pay these workers earn $66 per month and can ill afford to lose a day's pay, much less an entire month’s.

Around 8:45 a.m., measuring, cutting, and sewing stopped for a moment and a familiar silence descended upon the building as one of Bangladesh's frequent power outages swept Savar.

Like any other day, Rana Plaza's generators, located on the building's roof, roared to life. The huge generators began to rattle, putting more pressure on a structure already struggling to hold an extra three floors. The building buckled as the cracked pillar gave way, trapping more than 3,000 people inside.


The Survivors

After the building collapsed, Rubi Akhter said she was trapped in the rubble for two hours, though her memories of those hours remain fuzzy. Many of the survivors have blocked the memories of that day; it's as if the mental tape cuts right at the moment the building went down.

Many in Dhaka and its surrounding areas were mobilized by the images of the collapsed building.

“I think the tragedy had a tremendous impact on everybody, people were responding in whatever way they could," said Shireen Huq, a member of Naripokkho, a women's rights organization in Bangladesh that coordinated independent relief efforts. "There were big companies donating big amounts, but there was the local rickshaw puller who also would give his three packets of biscuits for the camps that were set up around the building."

But the rescue efforts, which lasted three weeks during the peak of Bangladesh's exhausting summer heat, were haphazard and chaotic. Most of the first responders were local men who had no medical or emergency training and went into the fallen building with whatever equipment they had lying around their houses.

"I took a towel, a cutter and a flashlight," said Mohammed Jinnatul Islam, an amatuer first responder.

For a tragedy as large and internationally followed as the Rana Plaza's collapse, there are huge discrepancies in the reporting, even between official sources. From lists of those who died, were rescued, or remain missing, to accounts of compensation received or not, there are significant disparities between accounts from the government, civil society and the survivors themselves.

The garment workers employed in the Rana Plaza factories — like the more than 4 million employed in the garment industry countrywide — are overwhelmingly young, female and economically vulnerable. According to a survey conducted by ActionAid, as of last month three-quarters of Rana Plaza survivors have not returned to work. Many say they will not return to work in a garment factory for fear of another collapse.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), Bangladesh has 3,498 factories producing garments for export and all are scheduled for safety inspections. However, because of the speed at which the industry has expanded and the prevalence of sub-contracting to smaller, unregulated factories, no one knows exactly how many risky factories are still employing garment workers.


The Pagolo of Rana Plaza

After being trapped for two hours, Rubi heard the voice of Khwas Ali calling out to for survivors. Khwas Ali, a local businessman, was waiting for the bus at a nearby tea stall when he heard the sound of a crash and saw the dust rising from where Rana Plaza once stood. Rushing to the site, he found his way into the building and began pulling people from the rubble.

Khwas, who worked at the site for 21 consecutive days, heard Rubi respond to his call on that first day and managed to cut a hole through the debris to pull her to safety. He quickly became the de facto leader of a troop of volunteer rescuers, comprised mostly of young men from the area who were nearby when the building gave way.

The group, the vast majority of whom had no prior emergency, medical, or rescue training, spent the next three weeks crawling through layers of brick, steel, smoldering fabric, and decomposing bodies pulling more than 600 from the rubble. And unlike many of those who were inside when the building fell, these men remained conscious throughout the rescue operations and remember the days that follow in vivid detail.

"I never saw this kind of disaster in my whole life," Khwas Ali said. "There was such a huge number of injured people, dead people. Maybe before I saw two or three dead people in road accidents or other disasters—but Rana Plaza was totally different."

The memories continue to haunt the rescuers, with many suffering from PTSD and insomnia. The men say they are called the pagolo, or “mad,” of Rana Plaza.

Khwas, who was laid off from his job after committing all his time to the rescue efforts, still checks in on Rubi and others he rescued, visiting them at homes and accompanying them on hospital visits.

Another rescue worker, Md. Jinnatul Islam, also from Savar, raced to the site when he heard of the collapse. He was shocked by what he saw.

"I could not imagine that such a big and beautiful building could collapse," he said.

Upon returning home and weeping at the television images, he returned to the site and convinced a policeman he knew to let him in. He spent the next six days recovering workers, both dead and alive, from the wreckage, before moving to work at the makeshift morgue at the Savar Adhar Chandra High School.

A year later, Jinnatul is still struggling with the trauma of the rescue efforts. “I cannot sleep alone in a room,” he said. “I feel those trapped are calling me, trying to catch my hand and calling me near, so I sleep very little at night. Instead I watch TV until 2 or 3 in the morning.”

The lingering mental stress has prevented him from returning to his former work and he has instead taken a job at the International Labor Organization working with survivors of the collapse.

But memories such as a corpse's head falling off in his hands and of crawling through the rubble continue to debilitate Jinnatul. On the sixth day of the rescue efforts, he and a friend discovered a young woman who was was still alive, but whose hand was trapped by an iron pillar. Shortly after finding the girl, all rescuers were told that the building was on the verge of further collapse and that they should evacuate immediately. With the girl begging him not to leave, Jinnatul blacked out for ten minutes. Upon waking, he decided the only course of action was to amputate the trapped girl's hand in order to free her.

He had no medical experience prior to the tragedy and struggles to understand how and why he did what he did.

"I meet some of the victims whose body parts I cut and I begged pardon of them and told them I had no other option at the time," Jinnatul said. "A few days ago I saw a girl I rescued without a finger. When she saw me, she ran up and hugged me."


A Call to Action

One year after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory shocked the world, both Bangladesh and the global community are struggling to find an appropriate response to the disaster. Western retailers, reticent to accept blame, have withheld compensation

Bangladesh's civil society, facing a government crippled by political infighting and rife with corruption, has stepped in to begin the healing and reform process.

There is a realization shared by labor unions, industry, civil society and government alike that Bangladesh desperately needs the continued growth of its Ready Made Garment (RMG) Industry. According to a McKinsey report, RMG products currently account for nearly 75 percent of the country's exports and employs 4 million people.