Fire broke out yesterday in a garment factory that collapsed in the Bangladeshi capital, complicating attempts to find any survivors of a disaster that has killed 380 people, as the politically connected owner of the building was arrested as he tried to flee into India, having been on the run for the past five days.
Reports said Mohammed Sohel Rana, a man who was connected to the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was seized close to the town of Benapole as he was trying to make his way into the Indian state of West Bengal.
When news of his arrest was relayed over loudspeakers at the site of the collapsed building where at least 362 people perished, cheers broke out from among the crowd.
In the Savar neighbourhood of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, Mr Rana was said to have been a political enforcer, always ensuring he retained good connections with both the Awami League of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as well as the BNP, headed by Khaleda Zia.
On Tuesday, when cracks in the Rana Plaza building were pointed out, he insisted that there was no danger, even though employees from a bank that was housed at the location were evacuated. Garment factory managers told their employees to carry on with their work or else have their wages docked.
The authorities had been looking for him since he disappeared on Wednesday. His wife had already been detained in the hope it would make him give himself up.
Fire service officials said the blaze had been started by sparks from cutting equipment used by rescuers
Two engineers who approved plans for the eight-storey building – three of them illegal – along with two garment factory owners have also been arrested amid mounting public anger. On Saturday there were protests in two Bangsldehi cities as well as outside a London store of Primark, one of several Western brans which sourced clothes from the site.
The Associated Press said that as Mr Rana was detained, frantic efforts continued at the site of the collapse to try and save more people still trapped. The building employed a total of 3,122 people through it is unknown how many were inside when the collapse happened early last Wednesday morning. At least 2,500 survivors have been accounted for.
Yesterday it was announced that rescue teams had found nine more people who are still alive. Efforts were being made to move concrete blocks that are trapping the people; if that fails they will be obliged to use heavy lifting equipment
“The purpose is to continue the operation to recover both survivors and dead bodies. In this stage, we have no other choice but to use some heavy equipment,” Maj Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy, coordinator of the rescue operations, told the AP. “We will start it within a few hours. Manual operation and use of small equipment is not enough.”
In rare good news, a female worker was pulled out alive yesterday. Hasan Akbari, a rescuer, said when he tried to extricate a man next to the woman, “he said his body was being torn apart. So I had to let go. But God willing, we will be able to rescue him with more help very soon.”
The collapse of the building has again focused attention on the perilous, unregulated nature of the garment industry, which is worth an annual £13bn to the economy of Bangladesh which which brings workers as little as £25.
While this disaster has been the deadliest to hit the garment industry, it is far from unique; last November, a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed 112 people. US rapper and producer Sean Combs was among those who sourced clothes from the factory.
Amid an outpouring of frustration and anger, activists have said Western companies must do more to help improve labour conditions inside the garment industry, which employes 3m in Bangladesh and accounts for 80 per cent of its exports.
Activists have said companies should sign up to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which would require signatories to fit out their suppliers’ premises to full safety standards. So far only PVH, the owner of the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger labels, and German retailer Tchibo, have done so.