DHAKA // A seamstress buried for 17 days in the collapsed garment factory building was rescued yesterday.
The news was a much-needed cause for joy as the toll from the building disaster broke 1,000.
The woman, Reshma, was carried out to wild cheers from the crowd, and in such good shape she was able to walk, a rescuer said.
She told those that found her she had survived on dried food and bottled water.
Reshma was found near a prayer room in the basement of the eight-storey Rana Plaza building, where crews have been looking for bodies, not survivors, since late last month.
"I heard voices of the rescue workers for the past several days," she told the Samoy TV channel from her hospital bed.
"I kept hitting the wreckage with sticks and rods just to attract their attention. No one heard me. It was so bad for me.
"I never dreamed I'd see the daylight again. There was some dried food around me. I ate the dried food for 15 days. The last two days I had nothing but water.
"I used to drink only a limited quantity of water to save it. I had some bottles of water around me."
Reshma finally attracted the crews' attention when she began banging with a steel pipe, said Abdur Razzak, a warrant officer with the military engineers, who saw her first among the wreckage.
Workers ordered the cranes and bulldozers to stop and used handsaws and welding and drilling equipment to cut through the iron rod and debris still trapping her. They gave her water, oxygen and saline as they worked to free her.
Reshma was freed after 40 minutes.
Soldiers and men in hard hats carried Reshma, wearing a violet outfit with a pink scarf, on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance that took her to a military hospital.
Her rescuers said she was in surprisingly good condition.
"She was fine, no injuries. She was just trapped. The space was wide," said army Lt Col Moyeen, who was at the scene.
Doctors at the hospital told Bangladeshi television that Reshma was out of danger and her kidney and liver function were fine.
Reshma said she had been working in a factory on the second floor when the building started to collapse around her. She raced down a stairwell into the basement where she became trapped by the wreckage.
She told her rescuers there were no more survivors in her area. Workers began tearing through the nearby rubble anyway, hoping to find another person alive.
"Reshma told me there were three others with her. They died. She did not see anybody else alive there," said Maj Gen Chowdhury Suhrawardy, the head of the local military units.
The bodies were eventually recovered from another section of the building not far from Reshma, he said.
Reshma's sister Asma said she and her mother kept a vigil for the seamstress, who is from the rural Dinajpur district, 270 kilometres north of Dhaka.
Asma said they had been losing hope amid the endless string of grim days, when only scores of dead bodies were removed from the rubble.
"We got her back just when we had lost all our hope to find her alive," she said. "God is so merciful."
The women rushed to the hospital to see her.
Reshma survived for more than two weeks in temperatures that touched 35°C. She scrounged for whatever food she could find, Gen Suhrawardy said.
More than 2,500 people were rescued immediately after the April 24 disaster, but crews had recovered several hundred bodies without finding a survivor before Reshma emerged.
The last survivor had been found April 28, and even her story ended tragically. As workers tried to free Shahin Akter, a fire broke out and she died of smoke inhalation.
Hundreds of people who had been engaged in the grim job of removing decomposing bodies from the site raised their hands together in prayer for Reshma's survival.
"God, you are the greatest, you can do anything. Please allow us all to rescue the survivor just found," said a man on a loudspeaker leading the supplicants. "We seek apology for our sins. Please pardon us, pardon the person found alive."
The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, called Reshma in the hospital, and the rescued woman began to cry over the phone, Gen Suhrawardy said.
She told Ms Hasina, "I am fine, please pray for me."
The leader, whose government has come under criticism for its lax oversight of the powerful garment industry, was racing to the hospital by helicopter to meet her, and congratulated the rescuers, officials said.
"This is an unbelievable feat," Ms Hasina said.
The death toll from the disaster crossed 1,000 yesterday, with officials confirming that 1,038 bodies had been recovered from the fallen building, which had housed five garment factories employing thousands of workers.
The disaster has raised alarm about the often deadly working conditions in Bangladesh's Dh75 billion garment industry, which provides clothes for major retailers around the globe.
Brig Gen Mohammed Shikder, an army official overseeing the recovery work, said the bodies being recovered were badly decomposed and identification was difficult.
"We are working carefully," Gen Shikder said. "If we get any ID card or mobile phone with them, we can still identify them. Our sincere effort is to at least hand over the bodies to the families."
Brig Gen Azmal Kabir of the military's engineering section said more than half of the estimated 7,000 tonnes of debris had been removed from the site but he did not know when the work would be finished.
Officials say the owner of Rana Plaza illegally added three floors and allowed the garment factories to install heavy machines and generators, even though the structure was not designed to support them.
The owner and eight other people, including the owners of the individual garment factories, have been detained.
The chairman of Enam Medical College and Hospital, which took in many survivors after the collapse, told Channel 24 that of the more than 1,700 people treated there, 75 remained with serious injuries.
The chairman, Enamur Rahhman, said survivors, many of whom had limbs amputated, were suffering from trauma and depression.
* Associated Press