A blaze broke out in the wreckage of a Bangladesh factory block on Sunday, killing a woman whose 110-hour battle for survival had touched the nation following its worst industrial disaster, the country’s fire chief said.
Earlier, the owner of the complex, property tycoon Sohel Rana, was detained as he attempted to cross into India and was flown back to Dhaka where he will face charges over the building’s collapse which has so far claimed 381 lives.
Firefighters were seen weeping live on television after failing to save the female garment worker, a widowed mother-of-one identified as Shahnaz, whose courageous struggle became a symbol of hope in the wake of the catastrophe.
“The fire broke out as we were cutting a beam to bring out what we believe was the last remaining survivor from the collapsed building. We managed to douse it, but as we came back we saw her dead,” Ahmed Ali said.
“She was a brave lady and fought until the end. We worked for 10-11 hours today just to try to bring her out alive. We took the challenge but we lost.”
Three rescuers were also injured in the blaze which was put out in a matter of minutes, fire service director Zihadul Islam said.
More bodies are expected to be found as workers, who had been digging manually to avoid harming survivors, switched to using earth-moving equipment to lift slabs and reinforced concrete to clean up debris.
Firefighter Abul Khayer, who spoke to Shahnaz throughout the rescue attempt, said she had an 18-month-old son. “She clung on for the boy... She told me you’re my brother, please don’t leave me alone.”
The eight-storey Rana Plaza, which collapsed on Wednesday morning, violated building regulations like many structures around the capital Dhaka.
Rapid Action Battalion chief Mukhlesur Rahman said that tycoon Rana “is the one most responsible for the accident. The building was declared abandoned. But he forced the garment factories and workers to work on the building”.
As Rana’s arrest was announced, garment workers and relatives of the missing cheered and began shouting “Hang Rana, Hang the killer!”
A police spokesman said they had also arrested Anisur Rahman, owner of Ether Tex garment factory. He is the fourth garment factory owner held by authorities.
By Sunday evening, the confirmed death toll had reached 381, according to police officer Liakot Hossain.
About 2,500 people have been rescued from the scene of the disaster, some only after undergoing amputations to free them from the pancaked slabs of reinforced concrete.
The tragedy has once again focused attention on the poor safety conditions in the US$20 billion Bangladeshi garment industry, which is the world’s second biggest after China, supplying many big Western clothing brands.
Britain’s Primark and Spain’s Mango have acknowledged their products were made in the block, while an AFP reporter found shirts labelled “United Colors of Benetton” in the debris.
The Italian group has denied having a supplier in the building.
The accident has prompted fresh accusations from activists that Western firms place profit before safety by sourcing their products from a country where textile workers often earn less than US$40 a month.
Protesters holding signs reading “Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops” and “Primark’s Shame” picketed Primark’s flagship store in London on Saturday.
As outrage over the country’s worst industrial disaster spread at home and abroad, police have stepped up efforts to find the accused and border officials have been put on the highest alert.
Officials said on Saturday that another multi-storeyed building belonging to Rana, reportedly a local politician from the ruling party, had been sealed off after cracks appeared in its pillars.
Police were also hunting for Spanish entrepreneur David Mayor, whose manufacturing company Phantom-Tac operated from Rana Plaza.
Mayor, who said in 2009 for a story on ethical manufacturing in Bangladesh, co-owns the group, which he said was run with a strong “social concern”.
The four factory owners who have been arrested face a maximum five years in jail over charges of “causing death due to negligence”, police said.
Survivors told police how managers had forced them to return to work on Wednesday despite an evacuation the day before when cracks appeared on the outside of the building.
Two municipal engineers who gave the building the all-clear after an inspection on Tuesday were also arrested and could face charges of death due to negligence.