I hear wailing horn of the ambulance losing to sirens from a heavy jeep hoisting the flag of Bangladesh and being escorted by special order protocol men carrying walky-talkies, dust masks and khaki vests making haste to make way behind their goggles. Critically injured survivors needing transfer to any hospital inside the city will have to suffer this tailback ordeal – I keep thinking zeep-ing towards the site this morning.
55 minutes after, this is Savar – away from the bustling capital Dhaka, except for now all the bustle seems to pack around Rana Plaza – the 8-storey building that caved in on hundreds of garments workers 24 April morning. Fissures in the concrete beams were visible the day before and concerned architectural experts said,
No one goes in!
Well, no one did, except for a few hundred garments workers, mostly women in their twenties and thirties, who were allegedly “forced” to get to work in this risky structure in a bid to making up for the hartal (general strike) hours to meet international buyers’ deadlines.
Dead lines… dead bodies… bodies bent in the waist… hurled into a flat mound… squeezed between ceiling and floor… dislocated limbs… and then the latest addition – the stench of dead people still trapped under the debris. Buzzing flies too.
I hear hydraulic lifters and metal clanks. People screaming, wailing, whistling, instructing, requesting, enquiring, clapping, ordering. I see people, in thousands – huddling shoulder to shoulder. I see people with no training in rescue wrapping up the head with a white bandana, brandishing an air freshener and off into the debris.
Inside the collapsed structure, survivors are still breathing. In every five minutes or so, bodies are brought out of the debris in stretchers and carried in ambulances either to temporary morgue raised in nearby school compound or to hospitals for treatment. I have come across four dead people stuck in debris.
Rescue work is seen considerably slow as a result of the sordid lack of proper equipments and electricity. Heavy columns were hammered down and rod sheets cut manually. But then portable electric-generators arrived. Hundred of locals and trained urban volunteers have joined hands with Fire Service and Civil Defence departments. Many organisations have supplied food items and emergency saline water. A number of media are active on the spot with live feed to online and cable channels. Rescuer-manned pickup trucks and ambulances carrying injured survivor or dead bodies moving away from the site in extreme frenzy.
The army and BGB battalion are seen to be more engaged in controlling crowd with little success. Thousands of people who are family members of the deceased/survivors and onlookers are congesting adjacent roads. The lack of proper coordination among government departments are arguably contributing to the slow rescue.
Government’s public display shows the number of deaths by the evening today 208, of which 154 have been handed over to relatives. More than 300 survivors are being treated in different hospitals in Savar and Dhaka. Rescue workers have made wholes in fallen concrete structure to fan in oxygen and supply food/water if possible. But we fear there won’t be any survivors to rescue after today.
ActionAid Bangladesh supplied food-water and rescue equipments to fire service and their trained volunteers. We continue to monitor the whole premises for discrepancies and communicating it to local administration on site for immediate action.
We talked to people, moved concrete blocks, supplied water and food, took photos, tried to control the waves of inquisitive crowd. We inspired rescuers and gave a few some rest while we joined hands. But I had to hop into an ambulance carrying a dead body of a woman. Many came rushing with laminated photos to ask if the face of the deceased showed resemblance to any. After 30 hours of the incident, no one could differentiate a face.
The search continues. Khadija hasn’t given up on her daughter Shefali Begum, an operator whose station was in the fourth floor. Khadija wails,
Give me my daughter – dead or alive. I just want my daughter back. Give me!
What will you say if I theorize a little bit?
What if I say, “Profit maximisation is disproportionate to worker rights”? I know my country hasn’t seen many such urban collapses and hence lacks in expertise to handling such situation. But what if I told you the list of unfit structures are not available to public query. What if I told you that the building was originally permitted to have 5 floors only? What if I told you the garments workers were threatened with a cut in their wage if they didn’t get in for work?
What if I told you I still feel I’m inside that ‘pancake’ debris?