SAVAR, Bangladesh — “Save us, brother. I beg you, brother,” Mohammad Altab moaned to the rescuers who could not help him. He was pinned between slabs of concrete in the ruins of the garment factory building where he worked.
“I want to live,” he pleaded, his eyes glistening with tears as he spoke of his two young children. “It’s so painful here.”
Altab should not have been in the building when it collapsed Wednesday, killing at least 275 people.
No one should have.
After seeing deep cracks in the walls of the building on Tuesday, police had ordered it evacuated. But officials at the garment factories operating inside ignored the order and kept more than 2,000 people working, authorities said.
The disaster in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, the capital city, is the worst ever for Bangladesh’s booming and powerful garment industry, surpassing a fire five months ago that killed 112 people and brought widespread pledges to improve the country’s worker-safety standards.
Instead, very little has changed in Bangladesh, where wages, among the lowest in the world, have made it a magnet for numerous global brands. Companies operating in the collapsed building say their customers included retail giants such as Wal-Mart, Dress Barn and Britain’s Primark.
On Friday, hundreds of rescuers, some crawling through the maze of rubble in search of survivors and corpses, spent a third day working amid the cries of the trapped and the wails of workers’ relatives gathered outside the Rana Plaza building, which housed numerous garment factories and a handful of other companies.
Rescuers on Thursday evening found 40 survivors trapped in a room on the fourth floor. Twelve were soon freed, and crews worked to get the others out safely, said Brig. Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, who is overseeing rescue operations. Crowds at the scene burst into applause as survivors were brought out, although no other details were immediately available.
An Associated Press cameraman who went into the rubble Thursday morning with rescue workers spoke briefly to Atlab, the man who pleaded to be saved. But the team was unable to free Atlab, who was trapped next to two corpses.
From deep inside the rubble, another survivor could be heard weeping as he called for help.
“We want to live, brother! It’s hard to remain alive here. It would have been better to die than enduring such pain to live on. We want to live! Please save us,” the man cried. It was not immediately clear if he or Atlab were among those later rescued.
After the cracks were reported, managers of a bank that had an office in the building evacuated their employees. The garment factories, though, kept working, ignoring the instructions of the local industrial police, said Mostafizur Rahman, a director of that police force.
Abdur Rahim, who worked on the fifth floor, said he and his co-workers had gone inside Wednesday morning despite seeing the cracks. He said a factory manager had assured people it was safe.
About an hour later, the building collapsed, and the next thing Rahim remembered was regaining consciousness outside.
Officials said they had made it very clear that the building needed to be evacuated.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association had also asked the factories to suspend their work.
“After we got the crack reports, we asked them to suspend work until further examination, but they did not pay heed,” said Atiqul Islam, the group’s president.
As crews bored deeper into the wreckage, the odor of decaying bodies wafted through the building. Bangladesh’s junior minister for home affairs, Shamsul Haque, said 2,000 people had been rescued.
Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy, a top military officer in the Savar area, told reporters that search and rescue operations would continue for at least three days after the collapse.
“We know a human being can survive for up to 72 hours in this situation. So our efforts will continue non-stop,” he said.
Meanwhile, thousands of workers from the hundreds of garment factories across the Savar industrial zone took to the streets to protest the collapse and poor safety standards.
Shikder said the death toll had reached 275 by Friday morning. The garment manufacturers’ group said the factories in the building employed 3,122 workers, but it was not clear how many were inside it when it collapsed.
Dozens of bodies, their faces covered, were laid outside a school building so relatives could identify them. Thousands gathered outside the building, waiting for news. TV reports said hundreds of protesters clashed with police in Dhaka and the nearby industrial zone of Ashulia. It was not immediately clear if there were any injuries in those clashes.
After the November fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory, there were repeated calls for improved safety standards by labor activists, manufacturers, the government and major retailers, but little progress.
The building collapse highlighted the dangers that workers still face. Bangladesh has about 4,000 garment factories and exports clothes to leading Western retailers, and industry leaders hold great influence in the South Asian nation.
Its garment industry was the third largest in the world in 2011, after China and Italy. It has grown rapidly in the past decade, a boom fueled by Bangladesh’s exceptionally low labor costs. The country’s minimum wage is now the equivalent of about $38 a month.
Officials said soon after the collapse that numerous construction regulations had been violated.
Abdul Halim, an official with Savar’s engineering department, said the owner of Rana Plaza was originally allowed to construct a five-story building but added another three stories illegally.
On a visit to the site, Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir told reporters the building had violated construction codes and that “the culprits would be punished.” Local police chief Mohammed Asaduzzaman said police and the government’s Capital Development Authority have filed separate cases of negligence against the building’s owner.
But on the streets of Dhaka, many believe the owners of the building and the factories will ultimately walk free.
“Was anyone punished earlier? Was the owner of Tazreen Fashions arrested? They are powerful people, they run the country,” said Farid Ahmed, an insurance company official.
The Tazreen factory that burned in November lacked emergency exits, and its owner said only three floors of the eight-story building were legally built. Surviving employees said gates had been locked and managers had told them to go back to work after the fire alarm sounded.
Habibur Rahman, police superintendent of the Dhaka district, identified the owner of the collapsed building as Mohammed Sohel Rana, a local leader of ruling Awami League’s youth front. Rahman said police were also looking for the owners of the garment factories.
Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, pants and other garments a year.
The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for major brands including North American retailers The Children’s Place and Dress Barn, Britain’s Primark, Spain’s Mango and Italy’s Benetton. Ether Tex said Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, was one of its customers.
Wal-Mart said none of its clothing had been authorized to be made in the facility, but it is investigating whether there was any unauthorized production.
The Cato Corp., which sells moderately priced women’s and girls’ clothing, said that New Wave Bottoms was one of its vendors, but that it had no production with them at the time of the collapse.
Primark acknowledged it was using a factory in Rana Plaza, but many other retailers distanced themselves from the disaster, saying they were not involved with the factories at the time of the collapse or had not recently ordered garments from them.
Benetton said in an e-mail to the AP that people involved in the collapse were not Benetton suppliers. Mango said it had only discussed production of a test sample of clothing with one of the factories.
US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the collapse underscored the “urgent need” for the Bangladesh government, as well as the factory owners, buyers and labor groups, to improve working conditions in the country.
Highlighting failings in the patchwork system that retailers use to audit factories, two of Rana Plaza’s garment companies had passed inspections by a major European group that does factory audits in developing countries. But the Business Social Compliance Initiative, which represents hundreds of companies and audited the Phantom Apparels and New Wave Style factories, said its standards focus more on labor issues than building standards.
Human Rights Watch says Bangladesh’s Ministry of Labor has only 18 inspectors to monitor the more than 100,000 garment factories in the sprawling Dhaka district, where much of the nation’s garment industry is located.
John Sifton, the group’s Asia advocacy director, also noted none of the factories in the Rana Plaza were unionized, and had they had been, workers would have been in a better position to refuse to enter the building on Wednesday.
“Unionizing is Bangladesh remains incredibly difficult and dangerous,” he said.
Associated Press Writers Muneeza Naqvi and Tim Sullivan in New Delhi, Stephen Wright in Bangkok, Kay Johnson in Mumbai, Matthew Pennington in Washington and AP Retail Writer Anne D’Innocenzio in New York contributed to this report.