Bangladesh garment industry

Last Bangladesh factory collapse survivor dies in blaze tragedy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 10:00am

Shahina Akter's 110-hour struggle to survive in the collapsed Bangladesh factory block, only to die in a fire that erupted in the ruins, has made her one of the tragic public faces of the nation's worst industrial disaster.

Rescuers said the 30-year-old widow never abandoned hope of getting out alive so she could be reunited with her toddler son, clinging on despite sweltering heat and the stench of corpses entombed in the concrete.

But her five-day ordeal, which lasted from last Wednesday morning to Sunday night, came to an end in flames when a worker using a mechanical cutter started a fire that engulfed the wreckage.

On a day of intolerable strain as the death toll continued to climb towards 400, many rescuers were left inconsolable as the last known survivor slipped from their grasp.

"I've never seen anyone so brave in my life," Abul Khayer said, weeping, as he and other firefighters pulled her dead body from the rubble on Monday.

Akter's battle to live gripped the nation. Millions had been watching live television pictures as rescuers squeezed themselves into narrow tunnels and jagged concrete in a race against time to save her.

It was a tragic end to a story that began with Akter's migration from rural Bangladesh to a Dhaka suburb to work in a squalid, congested garment-making district.

Her journey, like that of many other Bangladeshi workers making garments for Western labels, was prompted by financial need - and usurious moneylenders.

"Our mother had a gallstone operation 20 years ago and we took a 5,000 taka (HK$490) loan from the money lender. It became 70,000 taka with the huge interest. She and I had to migrate to repay it," said her brother, Jahirul Islam.

Akter, the fourth child of a landless farming family, started working when she was only 13 and she was regarded as a "hard worker", he said.

"There are days she would work from 8 am in the morning to 10 pm in the night. Some days she would work through the night," he recalled.

She earned a paltry 4,200 taka a month but with overtime she could make a couple of thousand more that she would send to her parents, he recounted. "She also was a very beautiful woman - and the most stubborn," Islam said.

Her heartbroken father, Motaleb Goldar, said the family only learnt on the fourth day after the disaster that Akter was trapped.

"We prayed, but Allah took her to heaven," he said.