Dhaka: The death toll in the collapse of an eight-storey commercial building in the Bangladeshi capital on Thursday rose to 164, as rescuers raced against time to save nearly 1,500 people still trapped under tonnes of debris.
"According to the latest count 164 bodies were retrieved and over 1,400 people were rescued alive," Deputy Commissioner or Administrative Chief of Dhaka district Yusuf Harun said. Television footage showed relatives wailing in shock as the bodies were being kept on open ground of a local high school to be handed over to them, while officials said over 100 bodies were already received by the victims' families.
Site of the tragedy was teeming with crowd who were frantically looking for their trapped relatives and friends. Meanwhile, national flag flew at half-mast as Bangladesh declared a day-day mourning on Thursday, while army and paramilitary troops joined fire service, police and elite Rapid Action Battalion in the salvage operations, which officials said could continue for next two days.
The building that housed three garment units, a branch of a private bank and some three hundred shops developed cracks two days ago, while regulatory authorities said it was built defying safety rules which eventually caused the tragedy. "The fact is we don't know yet how many people were killed actually... But I can tell you the building was not built in compliance with the (safety) rules and regulations," Home Minister Mahiuddin Khan Alamgir told reporters Wednesday.
Public anger mounted as reports said hundreds of mostly women workers of the three garments factories were virtually forced to work. The owners of the Rana Plaza in Savar and the garments factories went into hiding fearing arrest, while the regulatory authorities and police filed separate cases accusing them of illegally constructing the structure and exposing the workers to the fatal accident.
Industrial police said two of their detectives were feared dead as they went inside the building to investigate the cracks. Commander of the army's Savar-based 9th division Major General Abul Hassan Sarwardy earlier said army engineers were forced to proceed slowly with the salvage campaign fearing that rest of the structure could collapse, endangering further the people trapped inside the debris.
Sarwardy, who is overseeing the rescue campaign, said the salvage operations would continue "till the last of the trapped person was retrieved" dead or alive. Earlier reports said over 600 people were being treated at different facilities in Savar, Dhaka and the military hospital at the nearby cantonment while 30 official medical teams and several other groups of doctors and paramedics were providing treatment to the wounded at makeshift tents.
Army said 3,000 of their officers and soldiers reached the scene in minutes after the collapse as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered mobilization of all efforts to retrieve the trapped ones and treat the injured.
The reports said the cracks were seen at the Rana Plaza two days ago while residents at the neighbourhood said the building collapsed from different sides with a huge bang. Witnesses said water bottles and dry food were dropped to the basements of the building where people remain trapped. A television footage showed that two women garment workers were appealing for their rescue as a TV boom was penetrated inside through a hole.
"Please retrieve us... save my life," one of the girls appealed identifying herself as Sakhina while her sister Lucky made identical calls said they were trapped under a huge machine. Bangladesh's booming garment industry has been plagued by fires and other accidents for years. In November 2012, 112 workers were killed in a blaze at the Tazreen factory in a nearby industrial suburb.
Building collapses are common in Bangladesh as builders openly flout rules and the official construction code. The country witnessed the last major building collapse in 2005 when over 70 people were killed after a multi-storey garment factory collapsed in the same area.