SAVAR, Bangladesh — For 17 days, the seamstress lay trapped in a dark basement pocket beneath thousands of tons of wreckage as temperatures outside climbed into the mid-90s F. She rationed food and water. She banged a pipe to attract attention. She was fast losing hope of ever making it out alive.
In the ruins of the collapsed eight-store garment factory building above her, the frantic rescue operation had long ago ended. It had turned instead into a grim search for the decaying bodies of the more than 1,000 people killed in the world’s worst garment industry disaster.
“No one heard me. It was so bad for me. I never dreamed I’d see the daylight again,” the seamstress, Reshma Begum, told Somoy TV from her hospital bed after her astonishing rescue on Friday.
The miraculous moment came when salvage workers finally heard Begum’s banging. They pulled her to safety. She was in shockingly good condition, wearing a violet outfit with a large, bright pink scarf.
“I heard her say, ‘I am alive, please save me.’ I gave her water. She was OK,” said Miraj Hossain, a volunteer who crawled through the debris to help cut Begum free.
The rescue was broadcast on television across Bangladesh. The prime minister rushed to the hospital, as did the woman’s family to embrace a loved one they thought they’d never again see alive.
On April 24, Begum was working in a factory on the second floor of Rana Plaza when the building began collapsing around her. She said she raced down a stairwell into the basement, where she became trapped near a Muslim prayer room in a wide pocket that allowed her to survive.
Her long hair got stuck under the rubble, but she used sharp objects to cut her hair and free herself, said Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy, the head of the local military units in charge of the disaster site.
“There was some dried food around me. I ate the dried food for 15 days. The last two days I had nothing but water. I used to drink only a limited quantity of water to save it. I had some bottles of water around me,” Begum told the television station, as doctors and nurses milled about, giving her saline and checking her condition.
More than 2,500 people were rescued in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, but crews had gone nearly two weeks without discovering anyone alive. The last survivor had been found April 28, and even her story ended tragically. As workers tried to free Shahina Akter, a fire broke out and she died of smoke inhalation.
Crews were instead engaged in the painstaking work of trying to remove bodies so the victims’ families could bury their loved ones. They eventually approached the section where Begum was trapped.
“I heard voices of the rescue workers for the past several days. I kept hitting the wreckage with sticks and rods just to attract their attention,” Begum said.
She finally got the crews’ attention when she took a steel pipe and began banging it, said Abdur Razzak, a warrant officer with the military’s engineering department who first spotted her in the wreckage.
The rescue crews could not believe there might be a survivor. “But within minutes, we were sure that there was someone,” Razzak said.
The workers ran into the dark rubble, eventually getting flashlights, to free her, he said.
They ordered the cranes and bulldozers to stop immediately and used handsaws and welding and drilling equipment to cut through the iron rod and debris still trapping her. They gave her water, oxygen and saline as they worked.
Hundreds of people engaged in removing bodies from the site in recent days raised their hands together in prayer for her survival.
“God, you are the greatest, you can do anything. Please allow us all to rescue the survivor just found,” said a man on a loudspeaker leading the supplicants. “We seek apology for our sins. Please pardon us, pardon the person found alive.”
After 40 minutes, she was free.