Rescuers pulled dozens of survivors from the rubble of Bangladesh's worst industrial accident on Friday, but the death toll rose towards 300 after the collapse of building housing factories that made low-cost garments for Western brands.
Almost miraculously, 62 people trapped beneath the rubble since the eight-story building collapsed on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, on Wednesday were rescued alive overnight, police and government officials said.
However, there were fears between 300 and 400 people were still inside. “Some people are still alive under the rubble and we are hoping to rescue them,” deputy fire services director Mizanur Rahman said.
Junior local government minister Jahangir Kabir Nanak said the death toll had reached 292 and H. T. Imam, an adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said it could top 350.
Anger over the working conditions of Bangladesh's 3.6 million garment workers, the overwhelming majority of them women, has grown steadily since the disaster, with thousands taking to the streets to protest on Friday.
Nanak said 41 people were pulled alive from one room on the fourth floor overnight, almost 40 hours after the Rana Plaza building collapsed with more than 3,000 people inside.
Around 2,300 people have been rescued so far, at least half of them injured, from the remains of the building in the commercial suburb of Savar, about 30 km (20 miles) from Dhaka.
An industry official has said 3,122 people, mainly female garment workers, had been inside the building despite warnings that it was structurally unsafe.
Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of garments in the world but many factories remained closed for a second day on Friday, with angry garment workers protesting against poor conditions and demanding the owners of the building and the factories it housed face harsh punishment.
Police and witnesses said protesters set fire to a number of vehicles and damaged other garment factories.
Dhaka District police chief Habibur Rahman identified the owner of the Rana Plaza building as Mohammed Sohel Rana, a leader of the ruling Awami League's youth front.
Imam, the prime minister's adviser, said Rana had “vanished into thin air”.
“People are asking for his head, which is quite natural. This time we are not going to spare anybody,” Imam said.
String of fatal incidents
Wednesday's building collapse was the third major industrial incident in five months in Bangladesh. In November, a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory on the outskirts of Dhaka killed 112 people.
Such incidents have raised serious questions about worker safety and low wages in Bangladesh and could taint the poor South Asian country's reputation as a producer of low-cost products and services.
North American and European chains, including British retailer Primark and Canada's Loblaw, said they were supplied by factories in the Rana Plaza building.
Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said the proprietors of the five factories inside the building had ignored the association's warning not to open on Wednesday after cracks had been seen in the building the day before.
“We asked not to open the factories and told them we will send our engineer, and until you get the green signal don't open the factories,” Islam told Reuters.
“But unfortunately they violated our instructions,” he said.
A bank in the building did close on Wednesday after the warning.
Savar residents and rescuers dropped bottled water and food on Thursday night to people who called out from between floors. Nearby, relatives identified their dead among dozens of corpses wrapped in cloth on the veranda of a school.
Special prayers were offered for the dead, injured and missing at mosques, temples and pagodas across Bangladesh on Friday.
Ten labor groups called for a strike on Sunday by workers at garment factories across the country.
Sixty percent of Bangladesh's garment exports go to Europe. The United States takes 23 percent and Canada takes 5 percent.
Primark, a unit of Associated British Foods, has confirmed one of its suppliers occupied the second floor of the building. Danish retailer PWT Group, which owns the Texman brand, said it had been using a factory there for seven years.
Canada's Loblaw, a unit of food processing and distribution firm George Weston Ltd, said one factory made a small number of items for its “Joe Fresh” label.
Primark, Loblaw and PWT operate under codes of conduct aimed at ensuring products are made in good working conditions.
Documents including order sheets and cutting plans obtained by Reuters appeared to show that other major brands such as Benetton had used suppliers in the building in the past year.
A Benetton spokesman said none of the factories were suppliers to the company. Spain's Mango said it had an unfulfilled sample order at the plaza with Phantom Apparel.