The death toll from the collapse of a building here that housed garment factories rose Friday to 304 as thousands of Bangladeshis filled the streets of the capital city of Dhaka to express their fury and anguish about the incident.
“Our prime target is to rescue the rest of the survivors alive, as we are running against time,” a military spokesman told reporters more than two days after the incident, according to the state-run news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS). It did not identify the spokesman.
Two women who gave birth under the debris were rescued — along with their children — a fire service official said, according to BSS.
It was not clear how many of the products made in the factories in the suburban Dhaka town of Savar were destined for the U.S. market, but U.S. companies are major customers for Bangladeshi-made clothing.
In all, 2,348 people have been rescued, said Inter Service Public Relations Director Shaheenul Islam.
Seventy-two of them were recovered from the wreckage Friday, BSS reported, citing police.
Using hand drills and rod cutters, rescuers Friday pierced the rubble of what had been the rear of the building and extracted 40 survivors, 20 of whom were then hospitalized in critical condition, BSS said.
Hundreds more were feared still trapped amid the rubble, over which the stench of death hovered Friday.
The mound of concrete and steel, flecked with bolts of brightly colored cloth, had been an eight-story building housing five garment companies employing some 2,500 workers; a bank; a shopping mall; and offices.
Collapse came a day after cracks appeared
The collapse in suburban Dhaka occurred Wednesday morning, a day after cracks appeared in the structure. It has stirred outrage in Bangladesh over lax safety standards in the country’s key industry.
Most of the victims appear to have been garment factory workers, who had been told to report to work despite their concerns that the building’s structure was not sound. The cracks led the bank to order its employees not to report for work Wednesday, and the shops in the mall were closed because of a strike.
Officials coordinating the operation have said the rescue efforts would end Saturday morning, when heavy equipment will be used to retrieve the remaining bodies and cart away the rubble.
“You can see heavy cranes and bulldozers here to quickly remove the concrete debris, but we can’t use them at the moment as our prime objective is to retrieve the people alive first,” the military spokesman said Friday.
Authorities have said they did not know what caused the collapse or how many people remained inside the debris. But a police official said relatives had reported 595 people still missing.
Demands for punishment
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called Thursday for those responsible to be punished.
“Whoever might be the culprits, and if even they belong to our party, they won’t go scot-free,” she said.
The nation’s high court ordered the building and factory owners, who are believed to be in hiding, to appear in court Tuesday, CNN affiliate Boishakhi Television reported.
During protests Thursday, demonstrators carried black flags. Some set fires, and others used clubs to break the windshields of passing trucks.
Hundreds of workers lay siege to the head office of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association at Karwan Bazar in Dhaka.
They demanded the arrest of the factory owners and called for the death penalty for Sohel Rana, the owner of the building.
The vice president of the garment association, Shahidullah Azim, said the organization had suspended the factories’ memberships.
The demonstrations in Dhaka continued Friday.
Questions for Western companies
The catastrophe is the latest to strike Bangladesh’s garment industry, which employs more than 4 million people — most of them women — and regularly comes under scrutiny for its slipshod safety standards.
It also raises questions for the Western brands that contract with factories here to make their products. According to BSS, the United States receives 23% of the products — more than any other individual nation.
The U.S. State Department said Thursday it wasn’t able to provide details about whether American companies were connected to operations in the collapsed building.
But the disaster underscores “the urgent need for the government, owners, buyers, and labor to find ways of improving working conditions in Bangladesh,” said Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman.
The last major building collapse in Bangladesh occurred in 2005, in the same area as Wednesday’s, and killed more than 70 people, the national news agency said.
A fire at the Tazreen Fashions Factory in another suburb of Dhaka in November killed at least 112 people. Tazreen had made goods for Walmart and Sears, though both companies said they were unaware that the factory had made goods for them.
CNN’s Tom Watkins reported and wrote from Atlanta; journalist Farid Ahmed reported from Savar. CNN’s Jethro Mullen and Sumnima Udas contributed to this report.
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