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Dhaka, Bangladesh

24 April, 2013

In 2013, a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring many more. This was the deadliest disaster in the history of the clothing manufacturing industry. 

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A Tragedy

Working on the fifth floor of Rana Plaza (Bangladesh) are Preity and her sister. Preity, 15 years old, is the younger of the two and she works as a “helper”, cleaning and carrying, as does her mother who works too in the garment factory. The elder sister, 18-year-old Shampati, a serious girl who rarely laughs, speaks little and works hard, is a sewing machine operator.

The three women arrived in Savar not long ago, and for the moment can only afford a single room, but they hope that in time they will find something better.

The open yard full of chickens and children in front of their new home reminds Preity of the fields she left behind and of the friends she misses.

But she likes Shonjit, the 19-year-old son of her neighbour. He packs the clothes to be sent off to the west, and is handsome and funny, and sometimes walks her home at the end of the day. Preity is grateful for her new life, as she knows the three women are earning many times what cultivating their own poor land back in their village would ever have paid.

At 8am, as every morning, on every floor of the Rana Plaza, the bell sounds, conversation ends and work starts.

It is 24 April, 2013. The previous day, shortly after work started, three cracks were found in the reinforced concrete pillars that support the eight-storey building. An engineer sent by the Savar municipality declared the building unsafe, work in the five factories was halted and everyone was sent home.

But if an order is delivered late, accepted practice in much of the industry is for the buyer to deduct 5% for each week of delay. The buyers already have political unrest, wildcat strikes and blockades to deal with; they cannot afford to risk losing further days of production. And that is what they are facing now.

Monthly salaries are due in 10 days, so many of the workers are told by their managers that unless they work, they will not receive the money. Somehow, overnight, the cracks that shut the factory the day before have become less dangerous.

On the fifth floor, 15-year-old Preity, her mother and her sister are working by 8.30am. Preity is on her feet, moving up and down the line, clearing offcuts, bringing new needles or thread; her mother is nearby, while her sister working at a sewing machine at the opposite end of the room.

Shampati has time to stitch maybe two or three pieces before the lights go out, the old fans, which barely dent the heat in the factory, slow and the sewing machines stop. A power cut, frequent enough and no cause for alarm. The workers wait in the gloom, talking quietly, waiting for the powerful, heavy generators installed on the roof to start up.

Moments after the generators start, sending vibrations through the building, a pillar in one corner of the Rana Plaza gives way with a loud, explosive bang. Then each storey slides sideways, tips and splits, falling in on the one below. The floor starts shaking and it is clear the building is coming down.

Panicked workers rush to the two narrow exits. It is dark, there is much dust and noise. Runarini has managed to find her youngest daughter, Preity, and is now trying to get to the other end of her line where Shamapati, her eldest, was working at her machine. But the force of bodies pushes her towards the exit. She cannot hold on to Preity and fight the crowd to find Shamapati. The floor lurches, everything is falling.

In the darkness after the collapse there are many voices: sobs, sustained screaming, calls for help and water, moans of pain, prayers, howls of grief. Many are pinned down by huge blocks of concrete, bent iron girders, machinery. Runarini and Preity are trapped together and they can hear voices, but not Shamapati's. They shout her name, but there is no response.

Outside there is chaos. Dazed survivors stand immobile in a huge, roiling cloud of dust. It takes time for Dhaka's ramshackle emergency services to arrive, so hundreds of locals clamber over and through the rubble, tearing at the concrete blocks and mangled metal with their hands.

Runarini and Preity crawl together towards a shaft of light and are lifted from the rubble by mid-afternoon. The ruined building is now surrounded by police and soldiers, and heavy lifting equipment is arriving. There are electric saws and jackhammers, and lines of ambulances. There is no sign of Shamapati.

Runarini is depressed. She has still not fully understood that her daughter will not come home. Shamapati's remains have never been found. It is possible that the 18-year-old's corpse may have been buried with 250 others, all unidentified, in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse. There is even a chance that it may have been given to the wrong family. Bangladesh's only DNA testing facility was unable to cope with so many dead, and officials admit mistakes were made.

Preity still dreams of her village and misses her friends and school. "My mum cries all the time," she says. She misses her sister, too, and Shonjit, who sometimes walked her back from the factory. He was killed, too.