DHAKA, Bangladesh – The death toll from a garment factory building that collapsed more than two weeks ago near the Bangladeshi capital soared past 1,000 on Friday, with no end in sight to the stream of bodies being pulled from the wreckage of the worst-ever garment industry disaster.
Officials said 1,038 bodies had been recovered as of Friday morning from the rubble of the fallen building, which had housed five garment factories employing thousands of workers. The disaster has raised alarm about the often deadly working conditions in Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry, which provides clothing for major retailers around the globe.
"We are trying to cut through the basement floor. This is very hard. More bodies are coming out," said Brig. Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, an army official overseeing the recovery work. "We will need more time to complete as we are trying to recover more bodies."
He said the bodies being recovered are badly decomposed and identification is difficult.
"We are working carefully," he said. "If we get any ID card or mobile phone with them, we can still identify them. Our sincere effort is to at least hand over the bodies to the families.
Brig. Gen. Azmal Kabir, a top official of the military's engineering section, said more than half of the estimated 7,000 tons of debris have been removed from the site but he did not know when the work would be finished.
The country's powerful garment industry was struck by more tragedy late Wednesday night, when a fire in a sweater factory that had closed for the day killed eight people, including a senior police officer, a Bangladeshi politician and a top clothing industry official.
Unlike the collapse at the Rana Plaza building on April 24, which was blamed on shoddy construction and disregard for safety regulations, the Tung Hai Sweater factory appeared to have conformed to building codes. A top fire official said the deaths there were caused by panic and bad luck.
The fire engulfed the lower floors of the 11-story factory, which had closed for the day. The smoldering acrylic products produced immense amounts of smoke and poison gas and the victims suffocated as they ran down the stairs.
The dead included the factory's managing director, Mahbubur Rahman, who was also on the board of directors of the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Along with him was senior police official Z.A. Morshed and Sohel Mostafa Swapan, head of a local branch of the ruling party's youth league.
Since workers had gone home, the toll was likely far lower than it could have been. A November fire at the Tazreen garment factory killed 112 people.
The Facebook page of the Tung Hai Group claimed it was a sprawling enterprise with a total of 7,000 employees at its two factories and the capacity to produce well over 6 million sweaters, shirts, pants and pajamas every month. The group claimed it did business with major retailers in Europe and North America.
The factories in Rana Plaza were also making clothing for global brands at the time of the collapse. That has increased foreign pressure on Bangladesh to address safety in its factories.
The European Union's delegation to Bangladesh urged the government Wednesday to "act immediately" to improve working conditions in the industry.
Officials say the owner of Rana Plaza illegally added three floors and allowed the garment factories to install heavy machines and generators, even though the structure was not designed to support such equipment.
The owner and eight other people, including the owners of the garment factories, have been detained.
The chairman of Enam Medical College and Hospital, which took in many survivors after the collapse, told Channel 24 station that of the more than 1,700 people treated there, 75 seriously injured remained.
The chairman, Enamur Rahhman, said survivors, many who had to have limbs amputated, are suffering from trauma and depression.