Narrative of a voluntary emergency response team

by Shabbir A. Bashar | May 19, 2013 6:39 pm

As I saw the ticker tape scroll under the BBC news about the collapsed garments factory in Savar, my first reaction was, “here we go again … another bunch of careless, inhumane, greedy and unscrupulous Bangladeshi businessmen who couldn’t give a monkey’s for the safety of their workers.” My emotions went from frustration to anger to numbness as I heard the allegations of workers being forced with sticks to climb into a building that had developed serious cracks the day before and was on the verge of collapse. The posting on my facebook page read, ” … Death tolls are rising by the hour; people are still trapped under the rubble. Fire department says it may take up to three days for the rescue effort. I don’t even know where to begin to help as a volunteer with emergency response training …” I sent out frantic SMS to respected friends and family soliciting advice on how I could help.

Visions of the crumbling World Trade Centers in New York went through my mind. I remembered a footage showing a group iron workers from the remote Mid-West headed to New York to assist with the mammoth rescue and clearing effort. Having been a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area – a well known earthquake prone zone – I had taken a several month long training class on “Community Emergency Response” provided by the Fremont Fire Department. I am sad but not ashamed to admit that I did not have the courage to heed for calls to donate blood lest I infect myself given the poor hygiene standards in Bangladesh.

It occurred to me that I had access to some of the best welders and iron workers and their tools right here at our factory in Tongi. We reached out to Savar Fire Department to offer our help and immediately dispatched a truck loaded with a team of a dozen highly skilled blacksmiths, gas and plasma cutters and gas cylinders. As I got close to the site around 3:30pm, police and volunteers would not let us proceed further because ministers and politicians were on their inspection visit. Thus, my driver and I set off on foot to cross the last 2 miles – dawned in safety boots, helmets in hand. Ambulances, filled with the injured or dead or community volunteers sped past us in both directions. Managing to convince barricades of the Police, Army and RAB, I finally reached a Fireman who escorted the two of us into the building next to Rana Plaza – the de-facto command and control of the rescue effort – and handed us over to his commanding officer. A tall, slender and stoic fellow, Major Mahboub seemed a little irritated to be tapped on the shoulder but he gave me his brief attention. “Yes we could do with gas cutters. How many men do you have?” he asked briskly but pensively. “12 but we also have heavy gas cylinders, tools, shovels, hammers and cables and we need to get the truck to be here”, I replied. Pointing to his opposite number in the Police, he quickly said, “you got it … talk to him.”

My earthquake rescue training tells me every minute counts for trapped souls. A good agonizing hour and a half went by as I waited pacing up and down impatiently in the dark lobby – going between calls to our truck on its way from the factory in Tongi; watching bodies and injured being hauled past my nose; looking helplessly at the wailing relatives and curious on-lookers being held back by RAB and the Army from entering the staging point; eager reporters – both foreign and native – walking around or reporting live. Emotions were running high – very very high. As our team arrived, the army having cleared the last half mile of the road for them, I handed them over to Major Mahboub’s nominated point of contact – a Fire Officer whose badge read, “Shamsuddoha”. It took longer than I expected to unload the heavy equipment from the truck – with help from other volunteers and Firemen and our own guys – in the chaotic mêlée, back and forth rush of filled and empty stretchers, ambulances, flows of other volunteers and doctors but soon we had our guys working with the Fire Department.

By 7:00pm we were helping knock down walls on the lower floors of the staging building and making port holes on the roof of Rana Plaza: surgically melting the mesh of rods away with our gas cutters. It felt like the choice to literally dig in and help with the rescue effort than to let my anger and frustration over the unfolding drama behind a TV screen was a better choice for my soul. This was the least human thing I could do and the right thing to do. I had been blessed to help save a few lives – a rare opportunity of life time.

It had already become dark and tempers began to fray amongst the commanders and rescue workers alike. Cell-phone LEDs became temporary beacons and torches as men and women were being carried in stretchers by their fellow beings. I climbed up the stairs to the 4th floor and jumped over to the roof of Rana Plaza and watched as fire officers drew square shapes on the dust for the to be extraction holes; power hammers were in action to carefully crack the concrete for our guys to then use the blow torches to work on the rods. The second team reported that they were targeting walls to be smashed behind which they could hear voices. The numbers began to come in; Bablu Bhai, our team lead, told me that he had found one alive and one dead; it was 3 and 2 for Musharraf and 2 and 2 for Rubel. They would smash the walls and move on to the next spot while other rescuers extracted live and dead bodies. From the roof, Golap Miah and Ahad’s numbers were 5 alive and 5 dead.

Having instilled some kind of an order (the prime disorder of any control freak), it was time for me to take a dinner break and refresh. Flood lights had arrived and small generator sets were where they needed to be. The crowds showed no signs of relenting nor the anxious wails of relatives just outside the staging building. Bottles of water and packs of food also seemed to be stacking up – thanks to all the kind souls who wanted to help in any which way they could. A makeshift tent had gone up just outside where I saw young doctors doing triage. Drenched in sweat, helmet in hand, feet aching from the safety boots, I walked back the 2 miles where my car was parked.

It must have been about 11pm when police stopped us on the east side of the Tongi Bridge on the return trip. I was briskly told off by the plainclothes officer for leaving Savar to find food; he did offer to put me on an ambulance to send me back to the incident site. As I told my driver to go find parking, an uniformed police constable gave us a piece of his mind for blocking the road. I stepped out, helmet in hand … Another plainclothes officer suddenly appeared on the scene and instructed me to put the helmet on and discreetly cross their blockade. I nearly hugged him to say thank you! My personal yearlong battle to buy safety boots, helmets and gloves for our employees had paid off. If nothing else, various authorities at the crowd control barricades let us through so we could help.

It was midnight. The numbers from our guys had crossed 25 including the alive and dead, women and men. I was on the roof again – helping clear bricks and dirt with the rest of the human chain of volunteers. Rubel had been working with the Firemen to burrow down from the roof to three floors below. They were sending up rubble in a bucket attached to a rope that we would pull up through successive concentric extraction holes. He told me how he had crawled into a space with a doctor who had to amputate an arm with a hacksaw to rescue a trapped soul. It was horrific. Bablu Bhai told me about someone who wanted to have his limb cut-off to extracted.

Then suddenly, I looked over my shoulder. A lady, looking as good as dead, hair filled with dust, face looking like Beirut, dressed in a Shalwar Kameez, was stepping out of a hole. I was speechless. She almost stood on her own … but was soon laid down on the stretcher. Someone said a prayer of praise. I had witnessed my first miracle of the rescue. By now, our teams had consolidated into one – all hands on the roof. The voices from behind the walls had gone silent and smashing more walls posed a bigger risk to the structural integrity of the staging building itself.

I ran into Major Mahboub again. He seemed as strong as I had seen him while trying to crawl my way into the rescue effort. Asked if I could find him some food, he graciously refused. I walked back down the flight of stairs – ahead of 4 firemen carrying someone on a stretcher – trying to light their path in the darkness with my phone. By midnight, I sent off half our guys to get food while the other half were bringing their cutters and cylinders down into the basement of Rana Plaza per instructions of the army. Onlookers had mostly gone away. I picked up a lady by her arms as she squatting in the path of the equipment bearers. She complied – numbly. Touching her, I felt her pain and anguish. I did not have the heart to sit by her side and console her as she wailed for missing relatives. Her grief had turned to hysteria. Dozens of policemen, army, RAB seemed to be sitting lethargically by as the rescue effort continued painstakingly slowly through the night. I wasn’t there to criticize anyone nor did I have the authority to. Each unto their own, driven by their conscience. We were there with one mission and one mission only: to help expedite the rescue efforts with our specialized skills and tools.

I personally left the scene for the last time around 1:30am finding no useful purpose to be there anymore. Our guys were more stoic and determined than I. They wanted to spend the night. Their gas ran out by about 4:00am as had their strength. We all regrouped at the factory earlier today – the day after the heartbreaking night before – to debrief. As result of our direct efforts, 26 live souls were extracted while the number for the dead was 25. Even for those whom could not save, we had helped bring some emotional closure for their loved ones. Greater proportion the survivors, by our count were women while the dead were mostly men. Perhaps it is mother nature’s way of protecting the child bearing gender of our species or a testament to women’s resilience. A group of protesters in Gazipur had smashed the windows of the garments factory across the road from ours where we manufacture heavy duty electrical products. They wanted to barge into ours too. I feel the anger of the mobs. I do. I really do. Having seen the carnage, part of me wants to take the beating for the so called “industrialists” of Bangladesh who in reality are nothing but a bunch of cowards. Alas, that would not bring back the dead.

My last facebook post read

s: “The Fire Department is putting in most efforts; army is helping a little. Police, RAB and BDR are not actively involved with the rescue effort at all. But most of the effort is coming from the general public and volunteers. Food and water is being passed through tiny holes wherever voices can be heard. Sadly, I expect the death toll to rise significantly by the morning. Our guys refuse to leave the scene and insist on working through the night … I on the other hand am just tired – emotionally. This did not have to happen. I will never buy any Bangladeshi garments products in my life … I don’t want to wear blood on my person.”

Shabbir A. Bashar
Biography of author: S. A. Bashar is an electrical engineer by training and is currently a Director at a leading transformer and sub-station manufacturing company in Bangladesh.

Note for editor: I am attaching 3 photographs (some not so good) taken during the course of our rescue efforts. Feel free to use these or any suitable photographs of the incident from your other sources.

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