Factory executive returns unscathed after two days “in hell”
- Sabiha Sultana Mukta after her rescue on Friday
Photo- Syed Zain Al-Mahmood
For two days, Sabiha Sultana Mukta lay pinned in the darkness – the lifeless body of a colleague to one side, a concrete pillar just above her head.
“It was like being in a grave. I just prayed,” she said. “I knew I would die.”
Mukta was instead pulled Friday from the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building outside of Dhaka – one of some 100 people to emerge alive on that day from the site of Wednesday’s collapse. After spending a few hours in a nearby hospital, she was released with minor bruises.
Like many of the others who made it out, survival was a matter of inches and happenstance.
Mukta – compliance executive at Phantom Apparel, one of five factories in the Rana Plaza – left for her job Wednesday morning to protestations, Mukta said in an interview in the hospital. Her mother pleaded with her not to return to the building, where exterior cracks had been seen the day before. Mukta said her senior managers had insisted she go.
Just before 9am, Mukta recalls, she got up from her fourth-floor desk and went to the infirmary, in a corner of the fifth floor, a trip that may have saved her life. As she stood chatting with the two nurses on duty, the building caved in with a roar.
It had come down in a mangled stack—its floors collapsing, as one rescuer described it, like “slices of bread.”
“I was knocked down and when I came to, I found myself lying face down with a large concrete beam a foot above me. It was pitch dark and I had just enough room to roll around,” Mukta recalled on Friday. “I stuck out my arm and felt a body. It was one of the nurses, and I knew she was dead.”
Hours later, Mukta heard footsteps. People were hitting the structure from outside.
She shouted and screamed, she said, but the footsteps faded away.
“The body next to me began to smell,” she said. “I tried to push it away but couldn’t.”
“When I close my eyes, I still feel the stifling heat and choking dust,” she recalled, her voice shaking. “It felt as if I was in hell.”
After what seemed like an eternity – it was on Thursday night, according to rescuers – she heard voices again. She grabbed a piece of brick and threw it at a wall. Someone knocked back.
“They drilled a small hole in the wall and for the first time, I felt fresh air,” she said. “The men said they were from the fire service and that they’d get me out. But I would have to be patient.”
The men returned occasionally to feed her water and juice through a tube. As she waited, she worried the building could settle more.
“The beam had saved my life, since it created a pocket of air,” she said. “But if it settled a few inches, it would kill me.
She heard moaning nearby. It was the second nurse.
“Her body was twisted and one of her hands was under a block of concrete,” said Mukta. “She was barely conscious.”
Rescuers tried to free the injured nurse but couldn’t lift the slab. They decided to amputate her hand to free her. “The scream of the nurse and the sight of blood spurting out was something I’d never imagined in my nightmares,” Mukta said.
On Friday morning, the rescuers broke the wall with sledgehammers and reached her. She emerged, like other survivors, to cheers from the crowds that had ringed the site since Wednesday. She began to ask about colleagues of hers from the fourth floor. Their families haven’t heard from them since the collapse, she said.
“We must build a culture of safety in Bangladesh,” she said. “This cannot be allowed to happen.”
“The fire-service men said I was very, very lucky,” Mukta said, as her family attended to her in the hospital. “I never thought I’d see sunlight again.”