Wednesday's disaster in the Dhaka suburb of Savar is the worst ever for Bangladesh's booming and powerful garment industry, surpassing a fire less than five months earlier that killed 112 people. Workers at both sites made clothes for major brands around the world; some of the companies in the building that fell say their customers include retail giants such as Wal-Mart.
An Associated Press cameraman who went into the rubble with rescue workers spoke briefly to a garment worker pinned face down in the darkness between concrete slabs and next to two corpses. Mohammad Altab pleaded for help, but they were unable to free him.
"Save us, brother. I beg you, brother. I want to live," Altab moaned. "It's so painful here ... I have two little children."
Another survivor, whose voice could be heard from deep in the rubble, wept 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.
After the cracks were reported in the walls of Rana Plaza on Tuesday, managers of a local bank that also had an office in the building evacuated their workers. The garment factories, though, kept working, ignoring the instructions of the local industrial police, said Mostafizur Rahman, a director of that paramilitary police force.
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"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.
On Thursday morning, the odour of rotting bodies wafted through holes cut into the building. Bangladesh's junior minister for home affairs, Shamsul Haque, said that by late Thursday morning 2,000 people had been rescued from the wreckage.
Brig. Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, who is overseeing army rescue teams, said the death toll had climbed to 218 by Thursday evening.
Dozens of bodies, their faces covered, were laid outside a local school building so relatives could identify them. Thousands of workers' relatives gathered outside the building, waiting for news, and thousands of garment workers from nearby factories took to the streets across the industrial zone in protest.
Shikder said rescue operations were progressing slowly and carefully to save as many people as possible.
He said rescue teams were standing by with heavy equipment and would "start bulldozing the debris once we get closer to the end of the operation. But now we are careful."
He also said the huge crowd that remained at the collapse site Thursday was interfering with getting more rescuers to the scene.
"We are ready with about 1,000 soldiers and rescue workers from other departments. But a huge crowd is obstructing our effort," he said.
Thousands of workers from the hundreds of other garment factories in the Savar industrial zone took to the streets to protest the factory collapse and poor safety standards for the country's garment workers.
Television reports said that hundreds of protesting workers also clashed with police in Dhaka and the nearby industrial zone of Ashulia. It was not immediately clear whether there were any injuries in those clashes.
The garment manufacturers' group said the factories in Rana Plaza employed 3,122 workers, but it was not clear how many were in the building when it collapsed.
Searchers worked through the night to probe the jumbled mass of concrete with drills or their bare hands, passing water and flashlights to people pinned inside.
"I gave them whistles, water, torchlights. I heard them cry," said fire official Abul Khayer late Wednesday, as he prepared to work late into the night.
Abdur Rahim, an employee who worked on the fifth floor, said he and his co-workers had gone inside Wednesday morning despite the cracks in the building, after a factory manager gave assurances that it was safe. About an hour later, the building collapsed. The next thing Rahim remembered was regaining consciousness outside.
Abdul Halim, an official with the engineering department in Savar, said the owner 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 owner.
Habibur Rahman, police superintendent of the Dhaka district, identified the building owner 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.
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 email to The Associated Press that people involved in the collapse were not Benetton suppliers. Wal-Mart said it was investigating and Mango said it had only discussed production of a test sample of clothing with one of the factories.
The November factory fire that killed 112 people drew international attention to working conditions in Bangladesh's $20 billion-a-year textile industry, but Wednesday's collapse highlighted that workers still face danger. The country has about 4,000 garment factories and exports clothes to leading Western retailers, and industry leaders hold great influence in the South Asian nation.
Bangladesh's garment industry was the third-largest in the world in 2011, after China and Italy. It has grown rapidly over the past decade, a boom fueled by some of the lowest labour costs in the world. The national minimum wage, which was doubled in 2010, stands at $38 per month.
The Tazreen factory that caught fire 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 went off.
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