Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013

Getting ready for death

Harrowing 66 hours recounted after rescue of 8

Merina at the Enam Medical College Hospital bed being attended by her sister yesterday. She was trapped under the rubble of Rana Plaza for 66 hours during which she had lost all hope of rescue. Photo: Shaheen Mollah

Merina at the Enam Medical College Hospital bed being attended by her sister yesterday. She was trapped under the rubble of Rana Plaza for 66 hours during which she had lost all hope of rescue. Photo: Shaheen Mollah

All the time, she lived in a cycle of fear, hope and despair, and when that seemed an eternity, she waited for death.
Nineteen-year-old Merina Khatun says she passed out several times in 66 hours at the mangled wreckage of Rana Plaza in Savar and cannot recall how she was finally rescued.
Discovering herself in an ambulance, she looked around, bewildered at how she had come into that state. Later, she felt a bit relaxed meeting her sister in the hospital. Both Merina and her sister Shirina Begum used to work at Phantom Apparels Ltd on the third floor of the building.
“We are lucky to be back from the jaws of death,” Merina says.
She had eight other companions — five women and three men — in a crammed space with debris all around.
At the beginning, they cursed the owner of the building and the engineers “who took bribes and forced us into the building to kill us”.
Cracks had developed in the building the day before it collapsed on Wednesday. Though Brac Bank and other shops evacuated their staff immediately, the owner of five garments at the building forced their employees to return to their job the following day.
Merina said they had also been told that the building owner had the building checked by engineers and that nothing was found alarming during the inspection.
The group of nine garment workers found food items in tiffin boxes and that sustained them for some time in confinement.
On the first day, they got water in a bottle, the second day they shared tiny bits of pickle and the third day they had some rice. Some of the food had already rotted but “we had no choice”.
When water ran out, some of them could not bear thirst and drank urine, Merina said.
One of the fellow workers lost her mind and at one point started biting Merina, saying, “Give me water; get me out of here; take me to my son.”
Many times, they thought rescuers were nearby, hearing the drone of the drilling machine. The next moment everything went quiet, convincing them that death was what awaited them.
With hopes of survival fading away, they at last wrote their names and addresses on pieces of paper and then stuffed those into their clothes so that their families could identify them even if their bodies decomposed, Merina said.
“We even promised each other to relay our last words to our families if one of us could make it out alive.”
They all were rescued alive from that spot yesterday.
Another five workers were rescued from a nearby spot. The two groups, separated by a wall, could communicate with each other.
But the latter had had no food and water for 70 hours, said a weak Nasrin.
Not everyone, however, is as lucky as Merina or Nasrin.
Countless people still remain missing, leaving their family members with little hope of finding them alive.
Hundreds of “missing” posters are hanging on the walls of Enam Medical College and Hospital — a grim reminder that although a large number of people have been pulled out of the rubble, many are yet to be rescued.
Helpless and exhausted from non-stop frantic searches, their families were seen wandering on the roads in Savar like living corpses; their stares blank and their voices hollow, photographs clutched tightly in their hand.
Adharchandra High School, where the bodies of the dead victims were lined up, was teeming with people yesterday. They were looking at the decomposing and barely-recognisable bodies in search of their loved ones.
A dishevelled Sayera Begum, aged only 18, was spotted in one corner of the school ground. She was praying loudly, “Oh Allah, if you can’t keep him alive, at least give me his body, so I can bury him. I don’t want money, just his body.”
Shantahar, father of Najmul who was on the 6th floor at the time of the accident, was inconsolable.
“He is dead, isn’t he?” he asked everyone who was passing by and trying to console him that workers were still being rescued alive.