Bangladesh garment factory building collapse kills 127

SAVAR, Bangladesh (AFP) - Rescue workers in Bangladesh hunted for survivors overnight Thursday amid the rubble of a collapsed garment factory building where 127 people died and more than 1,000 were injured.

Working under floodlights with industrial cutters and cranes, teams of fire service and army rescue workers struggled to break through the mountain of concrete and mangled steel to reach people screaming for help inside.

"The whole building collapsed like a pancake within minutes. Most workers did not have any chance to escape," national fire department chief Ahmed Ali told AFP.

"We can still hear the faint cries of some trapped people." The accident has once again highlighted the safety problems and poor working conditions that plague the textile industry in Bangladesh, the world's second-biggest clothing exporter that supplies global retailers.

According to labour rights groups, it was the worst factory disaster in the country's history, prompting the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to declare a national day of mourning on Thursday when flags will fly half-mast.

Low-cost British clothing chain Primark was among the first to admit that one of its suppliers was based in the eight-storey Rana Plaza on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka which imploded at about 9:00 am (0300 GMT).

"The company is shocked and deeply saddened by this appalling incident at Savar, near Dhaka, and expresses its condolences to all of those involved," it said in a statement.

Survivors complained that the building had developed cracks on Tuesday evening, triggering an evacuation, but they had been ordered back to the production lines.

"The managers forced us to rejoin and just one hour after we entered the factory the building collapsed with a huge noise," said a 24-year-old worker who gave her first name as Mousumi.

Mustafizur Rahman, head of a police unit created to handle industrial troubles, said the factory owners, who have gone into hiding, had ignored a warning not to open their plants.

"After looking at the cracks on Tuesday, we told them to keep the plants shut. They defied our call," he told AFP.

Last November, a blaze at a factory making apparel for Walmart and other Western labels in Dhaka left 111 people dead, the industry's most deadly accident made worse by sub-standard safety equipment and locked fire exits.

At the scene of Wednesday's collapse, corpses and the injured were evacuated from the higher reaches of the rubble via makeshift slides made from cloth that just hours earlier was being cut into shirts and trousers for Western consumers.

"The search for survivors will continue through the night, for as long as it takes," fire chief Ali said.

Hospitals in and around Savar were overwhelmed with patients with serious head and chest injuries and some without limbs, said Hiralal Roy, an emergency doctor of Enam Medical College.

He said more than 1,000 people had been treated for injuries.

Deputy police chief of Dhaka district A.B.M Masud Hossain, who is in charge of identifying bodies and returning them to their relatives, told AFP that 127 people had died "most of them women".

Factories in the building where 3,000 garment workers were employed were making clothing for various European retailers, according to campaign group Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity Both Spanish fashion label Mango and Benetton of Italy, previously linked to the factory, denied having suppliers there in statements sent to AFP.

Walmart said in a statement that it was investigating to see if any factories in the building were producing for the US retail giant.

Tessel Pauli, a spokeswoman for the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign, said the accident was "symptomatic" of problems in Bangladesh where foreign buyers often overlook safety problems in their hunt for higher profits.

"These accidents represent a failure of these brands to make safety a priority. They know what needs to be done and they are not doing it," Pauli told AFP.

More than 70 people were killed in 2005 when a multi-storey garment factory collapsed in the Savar area.