SAVAR, Bangladesh — Emergency workers hauling large concrete slabs from a collapsed eight-story building said today they expect to find many dead bodies when they reach the ground floor, indicating the death toll will be far more than the official 386. One estimate said it could be as high as 1,400.
Hundreds of people waited patiently at the site of the collapsed building for news of missing relatives, holding their pictures and identity cards as they watched cranes lifting sections of ceilings and floors from the rubble. Emergency workers in hard hats used drilling and cutting machines to break up the slabs into manageable pieces.
Ratna Akhtar, looking for her husband at a nearby school ground, wailed: “Give me my husband back. At least I want to see his dead body if not alive.”
The illegally constructed Rana Plaza collapsed on the morning of April 24, bringing down the five garment factories inside. Together, they employed 3,122 workers, but it is not clear how many were on duty at the time of the tragedy. It was the deadliest disaster to hit Bangladesh’s garment industry that is worth $20 billion annually and supplies global retailers.
Roughly 2,900 people have been accounted for — about 2,500 survivors and the 386 dead. It is not clear how many people worked in other offices in the building which also housed a bank and many shops.
Most of the bodies have been handed to families except 49 that have been kept at the morgue of state-run Dhaka Medical College Hospital for identification. Mahmud Ali of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society said many more bodies are believed trapped under the rubble of the building, judging by the stench of decomposing flesh still emanating.
Zillur Rahman Chowdhury, a Dhaka district administrator, put the number of missing at 100, based on the information received from the families of the missing.
But volunteers from the Social Welfare Club based at the Jahangirnagar University say the official tally is incomplete because people have little faith in the government and don’t bother reporting their loss. Ahsan Imu, a volunteer at the club, said that based on information gathered from families at the site at least 1,000 people may be missing. However, he cautioned that there may be some duplication in the list.
On Monday, a Bangladesh court gave police 15 days to interrogate the owner of a building, Mohammed Sohel Rana. He was arrested a day earlier in a border town as he tried to flee to India. He is being questioned on charges of negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work. His father, Abdul Khaleque, was also arrested on suspicion of aiding Rana to force people to work in a dangerous building.
The crimes he is accused of carry a maximum punishment of seven years. More charges could be added later.
A top court in Bangladesh asked the government today to “immediately” confiscate Rana’s property.
A two-judge panel of the High Court also asked the central bank to freeze the assets of the owners of the five garment factories in the building. They said the money should be used to pay the salaries and other benefits of the workers.
Rana had permission to build a five-story building but added three more floors illegally. Huge cracks appeared in the building on April 23 but Rana told tenants it was safe to go in. A bank and some first-floor shops closed after police ordered an evacuation. But managers of the garment factories on the upper floors told workers to continue their shifts.
Police have also arrested four owners of three factories.
The death toll surpassed a fire five months ago that killed 112 people and brought widespread pledges to improve worker-safety standards. But since then, very little has changed in Bangladesh.
“I think it is a wakeup call for the nation, a wakeup call for the industry and for the trade unions,” said Shirin Akter, founding president of Karmojibi Nari, a Dhaka-based Bangladeshi group that lobbies for the rights of women in the workplace.
Bangladesh’s garment industry was the third-largest in the world in 2011, after China and Italy, having grown rapidly in the past decade.