SAVAR, Bangladesh » A seamstress buried for 17 days in the wreckage of a collapsed garment factory building in Bangladesh was rescued today, a miraculous moment set against the unimaginable horror of the more than 1,000 bodies recovered so far.
Reshma Begum was in such good shape she was able to walk, according to one rescuer. She said she survived on dried food and bottled water. She was discovered near a Muslim prayer room in the basement of the eight-story Rana Plaza building, where crews have been focused on recovering bodies, not rescuing survivors, since late April.
"I heard voices of the rescue workers for the past several days. I kept hitting the wreckage with sticks and rods just to attract their attention," she told the private Somoy TV from her hospital bed as doctors and nurses milled about, giving her saline and checking her condition.
"No one heard me. It was so bad for me. I never dreamed I’d see the daylight again," she said.
"There was some dried food around me. I ate the dried food for 15 days. The last two days I had nothing but water. I used to drink only a limited quantity of water to save it. I had some bottles of water around me," she said.
She finally got the crews’ attention when she took a steel pipe and began banging it, said Abdur Razzak, a warrant officer with the military’s engineering department who first spotted her in the wreckage. The workers ran into the dark rubble, eventually getting flashlights, to free her, he said.
They ordered the cranes and bulldozers to immediately stop and used handsaws and welding and drilling equipment to cut through the iron rod and debris still trapping her. They gave her water, oxygen and saline as they worked to free her.
When Begum was freed after 40 minutes, the crowd erupted in wild cheers. Soldiers and men in hard hats carried Begum, wearing a pink outfit with a violet scarf, on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance, which brought her to a military hospital. But her rescuers said she was in shockingly good condition, despite her ordeal. Razzak said she could even walk.
"She was fine, no injuries. She was just trapped. The space was wide," said Lt. Col. Moyeen, an army official at the scene who uses only one name.
Doctors at the hospital told Bangladeshi television that Begum was out of danger and her kidney and liver function were fine.
Begum told Somoy TV she was working in a factory on the second floor when the building began collapsing around her. She raced down a stairwell into the basement, where she became trapped by the wreckage in a pocket that allowed her to survive.
Begum told her rescuers there were no more survivors in her area. Workers began tearing through the nearby rubble anyway, hoping to find another person alive.
"Reshma told me there were three others with her. They died. She did not see anybody else alive there," said Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy, the head of the local military units. The bodies were eventually recovered from another section of the building not far from Begum, he said.
Begum’s sister Asma said she and her mother kept a vigil for the seamstress, who is from the rural Dinajpur district, 270 kilometers (170 miles) north of Dhaka. She said they had been losing hope amid the endless string of grim days, when only scores of dead bodies were removed from the rubble.
"We got her back just when we had lost all our hope to find her alive," she told Somoy TV. "God is so merciful."
The women rushed to the hospital to see her.
Begum survived for more than two weeks in temperatures that touched the mid-30s C (mid-90s F). She scrounged for whatever food she could find, Suhrawardy said.
More than 2,500 people were rescued in the immediate aftermath of the April 24 disaster, but crews had recovered several hundred bodies without finding a survivor before Begum emerged.
The last survivor had been found April 28, and even her story ended tragically. As workers tried to free Shahin Akter, a fire broke out and she died of smoke inhalation.
Hundreds of people who had been engaged in the grim job of removing decomposing bodies from the site raised their hands together in prayer for her survival.
"God, you are the greatest, you can do anything. Please allow us all to rescue the survivor just found," said a man on a loudspeaker leading the supplicants. "We seek apology for our sins. Please pardon us, pardon the person found alive."
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, called Begum in the hospital, and the rescued woman began crying on the phone, Suhrawardy said. She told Hasina: "I am fine, please pray for me," he said.
Hasina, whose government has come under criticism for its lax oversight over the powerful garment industry, was racing to the hospital by helicopter to meet her, and congratulated the rescuers, officials said.
"This is an unbelievable feat," Hasina was quoted as saying by her assistant, Mahbubul Haque Shakil.
Begum lived in a rented house in this Dhaka suburb with her sister, who worked at a different garment factory
The death toll from the disaster soared past 1,000 today, with officials confirming that 1,045 bodies had been recovered from the rubble of the fallen building, which had housed five garment factories employing thousands of workers.
The disaster has raised alarm about the often deadly working conditions in Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry, which provides clothing for major retailers around the globe.
Brig. Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, an army official overseeing the recovery work, said the bodies being recovered were badly decomposed and identification was difficult.
"We are working carefully," he said. "If we get any ID card or mobile phone with them, we can still identify them. Our sincere effort is to at least hand over the bodies to the families."
Brig. Gen. Azmal Kabir, a top official of the military’s engineering section, said more than half of the estimated 7,000 tons of debris have been removed from the site but he did not know when the work would be finished.
Officials say the owner of Rana Plaza illegally added three floors and allowed the garment factories to install heavy machines and generators, even though the structure was not designed to support such equipment.
The owner and eight other people, including the owners of the garment factories, have been detained.
The chairman of Enam Medical College and Hospital, which took in many survivors after the collapse, told Channel 24 station that of the more than 1,700 people treated there, 75 remained with serious injuries.
The chairman, Enamur Rahhman, said survivors, many who had limbs amputated, are suffering from trauma and depression.