Beauty (20), Sewing Operator, D Line, New Wave Style Ltd 8th Floor, Rana Plaza

© Taslima Akhter

Three days underground
“… if there is a problem, like if the building collapses, run upstairs.
But if there is a fire, run downstairs.”

April 10, 2014

Translation Sharmee Hossain

I had gone to the factory a day before the collapse at 9 am, and they told us to leave. We thought they were setting up a new electricity connection. They had recently moved us from the 5th floor to the 9th floor. We thought we got the day off because they wanted to get electricity connection on the 9th floor. We all went home. Then we were told to come after lunch. When we went at 2pm, the gates were locked. Other workers were saying that there was some kind of problem and the supervisor had asked the workers to come back the next day. So we went back around 8am the next day. We didn’t have power at home since morning. There is no clock at my place, and the sun was shining so brightly that I thought I was already late for work. When I reached the factory, I saw that nobody had entered the building. We were all standing outside, but PM sir [Production Manager] and the line chief were forcing everyone to enter the factory. I did not want to go in at all. I was wandering off in order to prevent going in. But they forced me to enter the building finally. I couldn’t start working that day. I was feeling restless. They had dragged us into the office. I couldn’t really work that morning; I was sitting at my machine chatting with other workers. The operator who worked right behind me said, “They could have just cancelled the shifts today.” They had told us about the electricity connections, but after going in that day, we heard that a big crack had shown up on the third floor. We had no idea that there was a crack. So the operator behind told me, “Listen, Beauty, if there is a problem, like if the building collapses, run upstairs. But if there is a fire from a short circuit, run downstairs.” We kept on talking about how it would be only fair to give the day off. The authorities could have just waited a couple of days to see how things are before they opened the factory. Many were saying that we would not get our salary. They had told us if we left that day we would not get our salary for the month. We were scared of that prospect, so we all had gone inside the building. While we were talking about these things, suddenly the power went off. Everyone started screaming as the power went off. Then they turned the generator on. But nobody was working. Everyone was feeling unsettled. Everyone was asking for a day off. PM sir said that he would have to speak to Rana [owner of the building], who apparently was there, before he could let us go. They didn’t let us go; before they could give leave, the building collapsed on us. Power came back on after the generator was switched on. When they restarted the generator, the entire building collapsed like a pack of cards.

No one could sit, or stand, or run, or hide -- the collapse was so sudden. I was sitting at my machine. I had taken one step from my seat when the roof of the building had fallen on top of us. We were all stuck. I lost all consciousness. When I woke up, I started screaming at the top of my voice. I was crying, and screaming “HELP! HELP!” We could hear people talking outside. We were all screaming from inside, but nobody heard us.

It was such a tiny gap that I could hardly move. I was stuck like that for days until I was finally rescued by the rescue-team. I thought that was the end, that I would not be able to come out ever again. That was it. Even my dead body would not be found. How would anyone rescue me from this pit? I was thinking—they wouldn’t even find my corpse.

I was stuck and I couldn’t run away. The sudden collapse had got me completely trapped under the rubble. There were two more workers with me who died right in front of my eyes. They died as soon as the roof fell. One died in the prayer position. There was a pillar in front of her. The other one was lying down. I held her hand, and felt that her hand was cold. I called out to her, but she didn’t respond. I couldn’t see her face. She was probably dead by then. I couldn’t see her face, so I don’t know who that was. It was so dark I couldn’t tell night from day.

The first thought that came into my mind was that of my child. I wondered what my baby was doing now. Then I thought usually my folks come and gather in front of our factory if anything goes wrong. Maybe they are all waiting outside. But so many people are stuck, and in pain, and crying—they won’t find us. I was still crying and screaming from inside the rubble, “I have a little baby! Please help me! Save me!” We never thought that the building would collapse like this. My husband had gone to office the night before to work the nightshift. He had told me on the phone, “Don’t go to office tomorrow, there is a crack in the Rana Plaza building”. I didn’t pay any attention. We were not informed by anyone. They told us that they were setting up electricity connection for the 9th floor. That’s what we believed. I had left home early in the morning, before my husband came back home. He had gone to find me in front of Rana Plaza after work, and he met a friend of mine. Since I was already inside the building, he had gone back home. The building had collapsed a few minutes after that.

Later I heard I was stuck underground for three days. I couldn’t tell whether it was night or day. Everything was the same. I couldn’t tell when day broke, or when night fell. All I know is that it was terribly hot down there. They used to blow something in from time to time. We had some respite from the heat then (the rescue-team was blowing in oxygen through pipes in order for the victims to be able to breathe - Editorial board). All I could hear were screams of pain, and cries of fear. All could think of was when will I get out this hell? There was no way of getting out of there. But we could hear people talking, and shouting outside. We could hear so many people, but couldn’t see anyone. I could only hear workers screaming: “HELP! HELP! WATER!”

Many of them had lost their limbs: arms or legs. Some had fallen under the pillars; some were under other things. There was no food, no drinking water. People licked off their own sweat, drank each other’s urine to quench their thirst. But we were not afraid anymore. We could smell the rotting bodies, but we were not afraid. All we could think was how to get out of this hell. I had stretched my arms to find others who were stuck close to me. It was so dark that I couldn’t see anything. I was stuck in a prayer position. My body was numb. My head was hurting. Although my body had been badly bruised, I felt no pain. All we could think was when would we get out of here? How would we get out of here? Under normal circumstances, would we have been able to hold if there was a corpse right in front of you? But back there we held our calm. I think Allah had given us mental strength; otherwise how did we survive that trauma? No normal person could have done it. At times I gave up hope that I would ever come out of that pit. I had thought I would die there, and that nobody would even find my dead body. It’s the power of prayers and blessings that I am alive today.

Last year we celebrated Pohela Baishakh (Bengali New Year) a few days before the collapse. We got our salary. There was a party at the office. Everyone gave flowers to PM sir. I couldn’t stop myself from wailing this Baishakh as thoughts from last year’s accident pervaded my mind. I feel sick every now and then. I feel unsettled and I cry. I keep on thinking about what we had, and how it has changed forever. I was alone there, people were shouting from outside, “Anyone there? Anyone inside? Speak up!” But nobody could hear us screaming. Later they broke the concrete and rescued us from under the rubble. It took them three days to break those walls. I heard that many of my colleagues had already died. I feel terrible when I think about it.

Beauty (20)
Sewing Operator, D Line
New Wave Style Ltd
8th Floor, Rana Plaza
Mother: Rashida
Father: Abdul Jabbar
Husband: Biplob Hossain
District: Panchagarh

Interviewer: Reetu Sattar
Transcription: Rina Amena