Search through factory rubble turns gruesome

On Saturday, 10 days after the collapse of a five-company garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, pairs of new denim jeans still were strewn over the rubble. The official death toll has reached 547, and 149 people are listed as missing. Bangladesh officials said they expect the death toll to climb as more of the site is cleared.

Wong Maye-E

— Ten days after the horrifying collapse of a garment-factory building, life has become still more gruesome for crews working to recover bodies at the site. The death toll rose to 547 Saturday, and the stench of decaying flesh was sickening evidence that the work is not yet done.

Rescue workers said some bodies have deteriorated so badly that they have found bones without flesh. Since the April 24 collapse in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, high temperatures have generally been 90 degrees or above, and lows have rarely dipped below 80.

“The bodies are smelling. We are using air freshener to work here,” said Mohibul Alam, a firefighter at the collapse scene. The odor of decay is overpowering just the same.

Bodies have decomposed beyond recognition, Alam said, but he added that some could still be identified because the victims’ identification cards were found with them.

The official death toll of 547 was expected to climb. The official number of missing has been 149 since Wednesday, though unofficial estimates are higher.

The disaster is likely the worst garment-factory accident ever, and there have been few industrial accidents of any kind with a higher death toll.

It surpassed long-ago garment-industry disasters such as New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which killed 146 workers in 1911, and more recent tragedies such as a 2012 fire that killed about 260 people in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh that same year that killed 112.

Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry supplies retailers around the world and accounts for about 80 percent of the impoverished country’s exports. The collapse has raised strong doubts about retailers’ claims that they could ensure worker safety through self-regulation.

Five garment factories operated in the building that collapsed, and many brand labels have been found in the wreckage, but only two retailers, Britain’s Primark and Canada’s Loblaw Inc., have acknowledged that their clothes were being made there at the time.

Mainuddin Khandkar, the head of a government committee investigating the disaster, said Friday that substandard building materials, combined with the vibration of the heavy machines used by the garment factories inside the building, led to the horrific collapse.

The building developed cracks a day before the collapse, and building owner Mohammed Rana called engineer Abdur Khan to inspect it. Khan said he told Rana that night that the building should be evacuated.

Police also issued an evacuation order, but witnesses said that hours before the collapse, Rana told people that the building was safe, and factory managers told their workers to go inside.

Rana has been arrested and is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, crimes punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. Authorities have not said if more serious crimes will be added.