'I thought I'd never see daylight again'
FOR DAYS, every call for survivors in the rubble of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh had gone unanswered. Yesterday, a female voice, weakened by 17 days trapped in a sun-baked ruin of concrete and masonry, called out "Save me" – and a rescue hailed as a "miracle" took place.
Reshma Akhter, an 18-year-old seamstress, was dug out of the twisted wreckage of a building where 1,045 other people are known to have died. She survived in a cavity, finding herself with enough food and water to achieve one of the greatest feats of endurance in the aftermath of disaster.
The slender young woman had spent days calling for help from rescue workers without being heard. "I kept hitting the wreckage with sticks and rods just to attract their attention. No one heard me. It was so bad for me. I never dreamed I'd see the daylight again," said Ms Akhter in a later television interview from her hospital bed.
Hundreds of people were crushed beneath tonnes of concrete when the eight-storey building collapsed under its own weight on April 24.
When the building started to cave in, Ms Akhter was working on the second storey inside the New Wave factory, helping to make clothes for Western brand names, including Primark and Bonmarche, the low-cost British retailers.
As the building fell in on itself, she managed to flee down a staircase, eventually finding herself trapped in a hollow in the wreckage created by a pillar and a beam.
Rana Plaza had also housed a market with shops and restaurants, perhaps explaining how food and bottled water were within reach of the cavity.
Three of Ms Akhter's colleagues were also trapped alongside her in the same recess within the ruin – but all died in the days that followed. Ms Akhter spent her last days in the wreckage trapped alongside their bodies.
Then, finally, her calls for help were heard. Jamal Sheikh, a rescue worker, noticed them shortly after 3pm yesterday. He and his colleagues had been resigned to finding nothing but bodies, believing that their task had changed from saving survivors to clearing the 7,000 tonnes of rubble which were all that remained of Rana Plaza.
Then came the high-pitched call: "Help me, save me."
Mr Sheikh remembered: "I asked if there was anyone inside the debris and then someone, a female, replied."
When Ms Akhter was pulled from the rubble – a delicate operation that took 40 minutes and required a hole to be specially drilled – Mr Sheikh said that her first action was to beg for food. She had run out of anything to eat two days previously.
As she was brought to safety, she appeared remarkably unscathed in a mauve shalwar kameez and a pink dupatta scarf. When she was taken by ambulance to hospital, dozens of clearance workers joined in prayers of thanks led by a man with a loud hailer.
Once in a hospital bed, she managed to smile weakly for a television interview and also took a telephone call from Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, who leads a government that has been heavily criticised for failing to enforce building safety standards in the capital, Dhaka, and elsewhere.
Ms Akhter's family had given her up for dead. Her parents and siblings had registered her as missing with the Humanitarian Assistance Centre, a local volunteer group, and then spent days visiting hospitals and mortuaries, trying to discover her fate. Day by day, the death toll from the disaster grew, rising inexorably from fewer than 200 in the first 24 hours to 1,045 yesterday, as the fate of the missing gradually became clear.
When the charity rang to say that Ms Akhter had been found alive, her mother, Jobaida Khatun, was so shocked that she had to be taken to hospital.
Ms Akhter's landlord, Monsur Ali Ahmed Nuru, said that she had been working at the New Wave factory for only a few weeks. She had taken the job as a seamstress after being abandoned by her husband.
Ms Akhter's sister, Asma, told a local television channel that the family had kept a vigil since the collapse of Rana Plaza, but they had been losing hope with every passing day.
"We got her back just when we had lost all our hope to find her alive," she said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)