The death toll from Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster surpassed 600 on Sunday after scores of bodies were pulled from the wreckage of a nine-storey building that housed garment factories.
Search teams said the death toll would almost certainly climb higher as rubble had only been cleared down to the fifth floor of the pancaked building and a strong stench from lower floors suggested more bodies would be found.
The building, which housed five garment factories, collapsed near the capital Dhaka on April 24, trapping more than 3,000 people, mostly female garment workers, who were sewing clothing for Western brands such as Mango, Benetton and Primark.
Lieutenant Imran Khan of the army control room, which was set up to co-ordinate the rescue operation following the disaster last month, said the “death toll now stands at 617” with 48 bodies pulled out on Sunday.
Hundreds of distraught relatives gathered at the site on the 12th day, as cranes and bulldozers cut through a mountain of concrete and mangled steel.
Mohammad Jashim, 25, whose garment worker sister Jakiya Begum was still missing, was among those holding a vigil at the site on Sunday.
Every time a body is recovered he rushes to see whether the remains are those of his sister.
“I won’t leave without her bones. She was like a mother to me,” he said.
Officials said some bodies pulled from the wreckage have missing limbs and some have decomposed, delaying identification.
“We’ve identified only a handful of them by their mobile phones that were found in their pockets or identity cards given by the factories,” deputy administrator of Dhaka district, Zillur Rahman Chowdhury, said.
Military rescuer Major Delwar Hossain said the stench at the site suggested more corpses were trapped under the rubble, forcing search teams from the army and fire services to wear masks.
“The foul odour is so strong you cannot work there without wearing masks and using air fresheners,” Hossain said.
“More and more bodies are being found underneath the debris as we are removing debris from upper floors to make it to the lower floors,” he said, adding search teams had reached down to the fifth floor after 12 days of the operation.
Preliminary findings of a government probe have said the collapse was caused by vibrations from four giant generators on the compound’s upper floors.
The building’s architect, Masood Reza, said he designed the structure to house a shopping mall and offices, not factories.
Police have arrested 12 people including the plaza’s owner and four garment factory owners for forcing people to work on April 24, even though cracks appeared in the structure the previous day.
Factory workers have held protests calling for tough punishment for those responsible for the disaster and demanding improved safety regulations.
Commerce Secretary Mahbub Ahmed late on Saturday reiterated pledges to “inspect all garment factory buildings” as Bangladesh faces pressure from Western brands to take “credible” safety steps to clean up an industry with a shocking accident record.
The government made a similar announcement after a devastating fire exactly five months ago killed 111 garment workers, but the subsequent inspections were widely derided as insufficient.
Ahmed urged the buyers and top trade partners such as the European Union, where nearly 60 per cent of Bangladesh’s clothing is shipped, not to shun Dhaka’s products, saying it would hurt the country’s 60 million poor.
“If anyone takes decision to stop importing from Bangladesh, it’ll eventually hurt the millions of garment workers,” he said. The 4,500 garment factories employ over three million workers, at least 80 per cent of whom are women.
British retailer Primark, Italy’s Benetton and Spanish firm Mango have admitted they had placed orders with the factories based in the compound, triggering an angry response in many Western countries.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest garment exporter after China. The industry accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s exports and more than 40 per cent of its industrial workforce.