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Building Owners Face Arrest in Disaster

Monday, April 29, 2013

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Six Bangladeshi factory and building owners have been ordered to appear in court this week to explain why they forced thousands of people to work in a doomed building that police had evacuated because of major structural cracks.

The eight-story Rana Plaza complex on the outskirts of the capital city of Dhaka collapsed Wednesday (April 24), killing hundreds of workers, injuring hundreds more, and leaving perhaps hundreds of others trapped.

The complex, which contains five garment factories, is named for the local politician who built it six years ago.

Rana Plaza collapse

More than 300 people were reported dead Friday in the collapse of the eight-story complex, which housed five factories and a shopping mall. Hundreds were feared missing, with hopes for their survival dimming.

The toll and scope of the loss were still emerging in the days after the disaster—the worst ever for Bangladesh’s notoriously dangerous garment industry.

By Friday (April 26), authorities said they had recovered more than 325 bodies.

600 Reported Missing

Inter Service Public Relations Director Shaheenul Islam reported Friday that 2,348 people had been rescued from the rubble.

The survivors included two women who had given birth amid the mountains of smashed concrete and twisted steel, according to the state-run news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS).

Many of the rescuers have been volunteers using crowbars, picks and their bare hands to reach trapped victims. On Friday, rescuers using hand drills and rod cutters pulled 40 survivors from the back of the building; 20 were immediately hospitalized in critical condition, BSS reported.

Rana Plaza collapse
CNN / Reuters

Thousands of Bangladeshis flocked to the scene with photos, searching for news of loved ones.

Rescuers begged public agencies for more help, and an untold number remained missing and trapped. One police official said Friday that nearly 600 people were unaccounted for.

‘Running against Time’

More than 2,500 people normally work in the building’s five garment factories, and up to 3,000 people may have been in the building when it collapsed, authorities said. The building also housed a bank, a shopping mall and offices. (The mall was closed due to a strike, reports said.)

"Our prime target is to rescue the rest of the survivors alive, as we are running against time," a military spokesman told reporters on Friday.

"You can see heavy cranes and bulldozers here to quickly remove the concrete debris, but we can't use them at the moment as our prime objective is to retrieve the people alive first."

The round-the-clock rescue effort was expected to shift into a recovery phase over the weekend as hopes for additional survivors dimmed.

Thousands Protest

Grief and outrage erupted across the area, sparking demonstrations by more than 10,000 people. Most of the victims appeared to have been workers in the five garment factories who had been ordered to remain on the job after deep cracks were discovered in the building’s seventh floor.

Cracks in Rana Plaza Cracks in Rana Plaza Rana Plaza cracks
Police video via BBC

Screen grabs from a police video taken Tuesday (April 23) show cracks in Rana Plaza. Police ordered the building evacuated, but garment factory owners ordered those workers to remain on the job. The building collapsed the next day.

Police ordered the building evacuated Tuesday (April 23) after the cracks were reported, but garment factory owners kept more than 2,000 people at work. The bank also told its employees not to report for work Wednesday, but the garment workers were ordered to report as usual.

“We did not want to go up in the factory this morning, but management forced us to go up and said that there was no problem with the building,” a weeping and angry survivor, Ria Begum, told CNN. “Just after I sat at my table to work, the building just collapsed.”

Authorities said the workers reported at 8 a.m., and the building collapsed about an hour later.

Death Penalty Demanded for Owner

The protests continued into Friday, with crowds carrying black flags, blocking roads, and demanding an accounting. Some set fires to buses and took clubs to windshields.

Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up the crowds, news outlets reported.

Hundreds of workers lay siege to the head office of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association at Karwan Bazar in Dhaka.

They demanded the arrest of the factory owners and called for the death penalty for Sohel Rana, the building's owner.

Collapse survivor Ria Pugem

“We did not want to go up in the factory this morning, but management forced us to go up and said that there was no problem with the building,” said Ria Begum. “Just after I sat at my table to work, the building just collapsed.”

Earlier in the week, the factory owners rejected an appeal by the association to allow workers to stay home on Wednesday, association president Mohammad Atiqul Isla told reporters.

"We asked the garment owners to keep it closed," Isla said.

The vice president of the garment association, Shahidullah Azim, said the organization had suspended the factories' memberships.

Arrests Ordered

On Friday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered the immediate arrest of Rana and the owners of the five garment factories, a spokesman said.

The nation's high court ordered the owners, who were believed to be in hiding, to appear in court Tuesday (April 30), CNN affiliate Boishakhi Television reported.

"Whoever might be the culprits, and if even they belong to our party, they won't go scot-free," Hasina said.

The Guardian newspaper described Rana as “a local politician with the ruling Awami League” who “is accused of exploiting his political influence to flout planning regulations to build the complex six years ago.”

On Wednesday, Home Minister Mahiuddin Khan Alamgir told CNN, "I can tell you the building was not built in compliance with the (safety) rules and regulations."

The Guardian quoted unidentified officials as saying that Rana had been “told of dangerous cracks in the building on Tuesday.”

Garment Power

Bangladesh is the world's second-largest exporter of garments after China. The $20 billion-a-year garment industry is powerful, accounting for about 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports and employing more than four million people, officials said. The minimum wage is the equivalent of about $38 USD a month.

Rana Plaza complex
CNN / Reuters

Rescuers, including many volunteers, dug with small tools or bare hands to reach victims.

According to the Bangladeshi news agency, the United States receives 23 percent of the country's garment exports, more than any other nation. However, the U.S. State Department could not say whether American companies were connected to operations in the collapsed building.

Walmart, which sources some of its garments from Bangladesh, issued a statement saying that it was reviewing its supply chain to determine whether the Rana Plaza factories were among its suppliers.

Other Disasters

The disaster was the latest for Bangladesh's garment industry. A fire at the Tazreen Fashions Factory in another suburb of Dhaka in November killed at least 112 people. Tazreen had made goods for Walmart and Sears, though both companies said they were unaware of that at the time.

In 2005, a building collapsed near the site of last week’s collapse, killing more than 70 people.

U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the Rana Plaza collapse underscored "the urgent need for the government, owners, buyers, and labor to find ways of improving working conditions in Bangladesh."


Tagged categories: Accidents; Building codes; Concrete defects; Construction; Contracts; Cracks; Fatalities; Good Technical Practice; Structural steel

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (4/29/2013, 9:48 AM)

Rana was arrested trying to cross the border to India.

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