Savar Tragedy: Where Humanity Shines Amidst Rubbles

On 24th of April, a nine storied building collapsed in Savar, in the outskirts of Bangladesh capital Dhaka, where thousands of workers were either killed or trapped (see Global Voices report). A long and difficult rescue operation has been going on ever since and more than 2834 workers have been rescued alive so far from the rubbles. The death toll has risen to 397 on Wednesday (May 1, 2013) and thousands of injured have been hospitalized. Authorities claim that 149 persons are still missing in the country’s worst ever industrial disaster.

More than a thousand rescuers from armed forces along with the firefighters and police were deployed. There had been criticism that the government rejected offers from foreign countries to aid rescue operations with modern tools and experts. However, they defended saying that they were confident that they could manage the crisis on their own and in quick times.

Volunteers inside the collapsed building trying to rescue trapped workers. Image by Rehman Asad. Copyright Demotix (24/4/2013)

Volunteers inside the collapsed building trying to rescue trapped workers. Image by Rehman Asad. Copyright Demotix (24/4/2013)

Amidst the situation an extraordinary thing happened. Ordinary people came forward to volunteer to rescue the victims along with the professionals. Where the rescuers from armed forces didn't even dare to go these people were brave enough to go there. This article looks at some stories of those brave people.

Some were students, some street vendors, some brick masons, some were day laborers or housewives. They were very ordinary people. Neither did they have any training, nor they had participated in any drills, let alone being equipped with necessary rescue tools. But they took the brave steps – they went inside the rubbles to bring out thousands of injured and hundreds of dead garments workers.

Blogger Arif R Hossain was involved in the rescue efforts right from the start. He has seen everybody's participation from up close. He wrote in facebook about a simple housewife, who engaged in the rescue efforts with a kitchen gadget immediately after the collapse:

সর্বপ্রথম এগিয়ে এসেছিলেন লিটনের মা, খুন্তি নিয়ে…এমনভাবে দৌড়ে এসেছিলো যে পারলে তিনি তার হাতের খুন্তিটা দিয়েই সব ধসে পড়া ছাদগুলোকে আল্গি দিবে। কালকে ওখানে আমি দাঁড়িয়ে হঠাত্ শুনলাম, দমকলের এক কর্মীকে বলতে, “কেউ একটা ডাইলের চামচ দেন আমাকে… নিচে একজনকে দেখা যাচ্ছে… ওকে পানি খাওয়াতে হবে।”

At first Liton's mother came forward, with a Khunti (a pointy kitchen gadget)… as if she would move the collapsed roofs with her khunti. Yesterday I suddenly heard her yelling at a firefighter, “Please give me a Daal (lentil soup) spoon.. I see someone under.. have to feed her water..”

A female worker is being pulled out by civilian volunteers and  members of armed forces. Image by Rehman Asad. Copyright Demotix (26/4/2013)

A female worker is being pulled out by civilian volunteers and members of armed forces. Image by Rehman Asad. Copyright Demotix (26/4/2013)

A lot of people from across the country had come to volunteer for the rescue efforts. Blogger Arif Jebtik shares a personal story in Facebook about two persons, who hitchhiked with him to Savar:

দুইজনের হাতে বড় দুই ঝোলা। এতরাতে এসব দেখে সন্দেহ হলো গাড়িতে বসা একজনের। সে সোজাসাপ্টা লোক। সোজা বলে বসলো, ‘ঝোলা দেখান, দেখি ঝোলাতে কী ঝনাত্ ঝনাত শব্দ করে। মাঝরাতে গাড়িতে তুলবো আর গলা কাইটা ফালায়া যাবেন, তা হবে না।’ ঝোলা পরীক্ষা করে দেখা গেল সেখানে ছেনি-বাটাল আরো কী কী দেশি যন্ত্রপাতি!
জানা গেল এরা পেশায় রাজমিস্ত্রি, তবে মূল কাজ পুরোনো ভবন ভেঙ্গে বিক্রি করা দলে শ্রম দেয়া। কাজ করছিলেন ভৈরবে, কিন্তু সাভারের খবর পেয়ে মন মানেনি, নিজেদের কাজ শেষ করে রওনা দিতে অনেক রাতই হয়েছিল, অন্যরুটের বাস ধরে আপাতত গাজীপুরের এই জংশনে নেমে পড়েছেন। সাভারের জন্য কোনো গণপরিবহনের অপেক্ষা করছেন। সাভারের এই কারখানাগুলোতে তাদের কেউ কাজ করে না, কিন্তু তারা এসেছেন বিবেকের দায়ে।
এদের মধ্যে প্রৌঢ়জন দাঁতমুখ শক্ত করে বললেন, ‘২১ বছর বিল্ডিং ভাঙ্গার কাম করি। এই বিপদে আমি না থাকলে কে থাকব কন?’

Both had big bags in their hands. One passenger got suspicious. He asked bluntly: “show us whats in your bag. There are sounds of metal coming from there. We don't want to invite robbers in our car in midnight.” After examining their bags some local masonry tools were found.

Then we learnt that they are brick masons, but they are specialized in dismantling houses and selling scraps. Both were working in Bhairab, but hearing about Savar, they could not wait. They started after work, so the journey was already late. They took a bus till Gazipur and got out here. They were waiting for a public transport towards Savar. They don't have any kin working in the collapsed factories. They just came here out of their conscience.

The elderly among them spoke, “I dismantle buildings for 21 years. If I am not available for the rescue operations for this disaster, who will be?”

The crumbled roof of the factory. Many workers trapped in pockets inside. Image by Firoz Ahmed. Copyright Demotix (26/4/2013)

The crumbled roofs of the nine-story factory. Many workers were trapped in pockets inside. Image by Firoz Ahmed. Copyright Demotix (26/4/2013)

Mohapurush Shoeb shared a photo of a rescue worker in Facebook whose name is Babu. He alone saved 30 persons from the collapsed rubble. Risking his life he entered inside the building. He shared his experience:

ইটের স্তুপ সরিয়ে ৮ তলা থেকে একেবারে ৬ তলা পর্যন্ত নেমে আসি। সঙ্গে আরো দুজন ছিল। সেখানে ৫০ থেকে ৬০ জনের লাশ দেখতে পেলাম। লাশের স্তুপের মধ্যে থেকেই একজন হাত ধরে বললো, আমাকে বাঁচান। টেনে তাকে বাইরে বের করে নিয়ে আসি।

I moved the stack of bricks and climbed down to the 6th floor from the 8th. Two volunteers accompanied me. We saw 50-60 dead bodies. From the pile of bodies one hand grabbed me. The feeble voice said “save me”. I pulled her out from there and saved her.

Babu became sick after working many hours. After a break he joined the rescue work again.

Savar's Enam Medical College Hospital has created an unique example of providing medical help to so many injured people (for free) who were admitted there immediately after collapse. Maruf Raihan Khan, a student of 3rd year of this medical college has experienced the situation and shared in Doctors Cafe facebook page:

[…] অ্যাম্বুলেন্স করে এতো মানুষ আসছে কেন? কয়েকজনকে জিজ্ঞেস করতেই জানা গেল। কি অবস্থা একেকজন রোগীর! তাকানো যায় না! চোখে জল টলমল করা শুরু করলো।
এক অ্যাম্বুলেন্স থেকে রোগী নামাতে না নামাতেই চলে আসে আরেকটা। যারা উপস্থিত সকলে যেন দিশেহারা। এতো ট্রলি, এতো হুইল চেয়ার আন-নেয়ার লোক কোথায়? কর্মচারীদের সাথে হাত লাগালো এখানেও ছাত্ররা, আশেপাশের মানুষরাও।

[…] why so many people are coming in ambulances? I asked a few and learnt. I couldn't look at the injured bodies, such a disaster. My eyes filled with tears.

The staffs could barely finish unloading one injured person, and another appeared. Everyone was at a loss. Where are so many trollies or wheelchairs required for so many victims? The students came forward to help the staffs on duty. Even the local people started to give a hand.

He wrote about the blood donation of the common people:

তখন রক্ত দরকার, প্রচুর, প্রচুর। একটা টেবিল আর টুল নিয়ে বাইরে বসা হয়েছে। যারা রক্ত দেবে তাদের তালিকা করা হচ্ছে। লিখে কূল পাচ্ছি না। পাশে থাকা আরো দুই লোক আমার সাথে লিখতে থাকলেন। শত শত মানুষ রক্ত দিতে চলে এসেছেন, শুধু সাভার থেকে নয়; বহু দূর-দূরান্ত থেকে। কার আগে কে রক্ত দেবেন, এই নিয়ে প্রতিযোগিতা।

We needed blood, much, much blood. A tool and a table was placed outside. The list of blood donors was being prepared. I just couldn't stop writing and rest. Two colleagues joined me to prepare the list seeing hundreds of people lining up to donate blood. Not only from Savar; but also from far away they came. There was actually a rivalry on who was going to donate first.

Every day there  new missing people information being added to this wall.

Every day new missing people information are being added to this wall. Image by Shuvra Kanti Das. Copyright Demotix (30/4/2013)

Many people also donated blood in Shahbag Gonojagoron Moncho. A lot of contribution were in the form of water, saline and medicine for the injured victims. This poor man could bring only one bottle of water, one packet of biscuit and one packet saline. But he felt he should do something for the injured. Some even offered free phone service for those searching for missing people.

Parvez Alam writes in Facebook about this amazing response from common people:

রাষ্ট্র যেমনি হউক আমাদের সমাজ পিছিয়ে নাই। এর প্রমাণ গতকালই হয়েছে যখন জনতা নিজ উদ্যোগে লাইন দিয়ে রক্ত দিয়েছে, ঝুঁকি নিয়ে উদ্ধার কাজে নেমে পড়েছে, নিজেরাই যে কয়জনকে সম্ভব বাঁচিয়েছে।

No matter how the state performed our societies did not let us down. A proof of this can be found in the long line of blood donors, how they engaged in the rescue efforts and saved many lives on their own.


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