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The seamstress in the rubble

By Saeed Ahmed and Leone Lakhani, CNN
updated 5:36 PM EDT, Wed May 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Last survivor rescued from rubble gives CNN one of her first one-on-one interviews
  • Reshma describes 17 harrowing days buried underground in pitch-black darkness
  • She remembers being sent back to work the day the building fell, after spotting cracks
  • Her mother traveled 170 miles to find Reshma's remains; now "my heart is bursting with joy"

Dhaka, Bangladesh (CNN) -- "Save me!" a man's voice cries out in the darkness. "Please save me!"

"I can't see you," she replies. "I don't know where you are."

"Save me! Please save me!" the voice pleads again.

"I want to," she says. "But I can't move either."

She loses consciousness.

When she wakes, the voice is gone.

In that cramped, dark grave under 700 tons of concrete and steel, she is all alone.

****

The concept of purgatory isn't familiar to most Bangladeshis.

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But the way Reshma describes her 17 harrowing days -- buried underground in pitch-black darkness as the voices around her faded away, as sweltering days bled into humid nights, as she questioned whether she was in this world or the next -- it's an apt one.

"I'd crawl, tire and sleep. I would wake up and crawl again," Reshma recounted, her voice barely audible, as she spoke to CNN on Tuesday.

It was one of her first extended one-on-one interviews since rescuers pulled her out alive last week from the rubble of a collapsed building.

"I told God, 'Take me, if that's your will. If not, then save me.

" 'But don't leave me here like this.' "

How did she survive?

****

The youngest in the family is often the most rebellious.

And Reshma, the fifth child of her mother, Zubaida, always had an independent streak.

When she was little, she preferred rolling a tire down the street with the boys to dressing up dolls with the girls.

As a teen, she surprised her family by marrying a man several years her elder.

She was in love, she told them, and love has no boundaries.

"We accepted him," Zubaida said. "But he wasn't good to her."

He'd tell her that her family hadn't paid enough in dowry. He'd taunt her that he'd take another wife. And, said her mother, he "tortured her."

"We gave as much as we could," she said. "But it wasn't enough."

In June 2010, the couple moved from Dinjapur to Dhaka, the go-to destination for the destitute looking to change their fortunes.

A garment worker himself, the husband persuaded Reshma to join the trade.

The money was good. And he snickered that it'd make up for what her parents weren't paying him, Zubaida said.

In January, he disappeared.

Unable to afford rent on her own, Reshma moved to a tiny room in a house next to the Savar Bazaar bus stop.

Rescue workers carry Reshma Begum, 19, to safety on Friday, May 10, a day after her discovery alive amid the wreckage of a building that had entombed her since it collapsed on April 24, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At least 1,127 people have been confirmed dead from the garment factory building collapse. Rescue workers carry Reshma Begum, 19, to safety on Friday, May 10, a day after her discovery alive amid the wreckage of a building that had entombed her since it collapsed on April 24, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At least 1,127 people have been confirmed dead from the garment factory building collapse.
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Members of the Bangladesh army pray at the site of the collapsed Rana Plaza in Savar near Dhaka on Tuesday, May 14. The army-led effort to search for bodies has ended nearly three weeks after the nine-story building collapsed. The final death toll stands at 1,127. Members of the Bangladesh army pray at the site of the collapsed Rana Plaza in Savar near Dhaka on Tuesday, May 14. The army-led effort to search for bodies has ended nearly three weeks after the nine-story building collapsed. The final death toll stands at 1,127.
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Seventeen days after a building collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, rescuers pull Reshma Begum from the rubble on May 10. More than 1,000 people have died since the nine-story garment factory building fell on April 24. Seventeen days after a building collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, rescuers pull Reshma Begum from the rubble on May 10. More than 1,000 people have died since the nine-story garment factory building fell on April 24.
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Marching Bangladeshis hold up portraits of relatives missing in the Rana Plaza building collapse on Tuesday, May 14. They're demanding wages for the missing garment workers and the death sentence for the building owner. Rana Plaza collapsed on April 24 in Savar outside Dhaka; the final death toll stands at 1,127. Marching Bangladeshis hold up portraits of relatives missing in the Rana Plaza building collapse on Tuesday, May 14. They're demanding wages for the missing garment workers and the death sentence for the building owner. Rana Plaza collapsed on April 24 in Savar outside Dhaka; the final death toll stands at 1,127.
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Savar, once an undeveloped agricultural patch of land just outside Dhaka, has grown into a chaotic, potholed boomtown, home to a disproportionate number of the country's 4,500 garment factories.

And Reshma quickly found a job at Rana Plaza, a gargantuan, nine-story, city-block-sized structure that housed shops, a bank and five garment workshops.

The $60 she earned a month was twice the average for garment workers in Bangladesh.

Still, the loss of her husband's additional earnings meant she barely squeaked by.

***

"I have to find a way to chop this off," Reshma thinks.

Her long dark hair is caught under a slab of concrete. Every time she tries to move, large chunks of hair are pulled out of her head.

She feels around in the darkness to see what she can find.

A pair of scissors.

She grabs a handful of hair.

Snip.

She is now free to explore on her hands and knees this dust-choked cocoon.

***

When the first cracks appeared in the exterior walls of Rana Plaza, the news spread among the workers in quick murmurs.

The building was built without the right permits on land that used to be a pond, officials now say. The weak foundation was threatened even further when the owner added four floors to what was once a five-story structure.

Generators hummed on the fourth floor, sometimes so loudly that workers said they could feel the structure vibrate.

But all this was revealed after the fact. After Rana Plaza pancaked on April 24. After it claimed more than 1,100 lives.

On April 23, the owner, Sohel Rana, called in an engineer to inspect the building and appease worker concerns.

The engineer, officials later said, took one look at support pillars on the third floor and was horrified. The fissures were deep -- and many.

The building is unsound, he said. No one should be inside.

Rana dismissed those concerns.

"This building will stand a hundred years," he boasted that day.

The factory owners were relieved. Political unrest in the country has meant frequent general strikes and a backlog of orders for them. They couldn't afford a work stoppage if they intended to keep their foreign clients happy.

The industry generates more than $20 billion a year, making the country the second largest exporter of clothing after China.

So they gave the workers an ultimatum: Miss work, miss pay.

The next morning at work, Reshma and others checked out the cracks. They looked ominous.

"The managers said, 'That's just water damage. Go back to work,' " she said.

She did, taking her spot among the long rows of sewing machines at New Wave Bottoms.

An hour later, the power failed. Then came a loud rumble.

Pillars crashed. Support beams punched through windows. Dust and debris clogged the air.

The ceiling raced toward Reshma. And the floors gave way.

"I fell. And I fell," Reshma said.

Then she blacked out.

***

Reshma crawls across the rubble with the little strength she can muster.

"Water," she tells herself. "I have to find water."

She'd found a little in a bottle soon after the fall.

But how long ago was that?

Hours? Days? Weeks? In this darkness, she can't tell.

The anguished cries around her stopped a long time ago.

The man who'd begged her for help was the last voice.

Darkness. Silence. Desperation.

She drags through the detritus, her clothing ripping to shreds.

She pokes bricks with a rod. One tiny space leads to another. Each an air pocket within the sandwiched structure.

She scavenges for food. The four crackers she'd found in the ruins and rationed carefully are gone.

What she really needs is water.

She eventually finds it.

With cupped palms, she pours it down her parched throat.

"I didn't know if it was rainwater or dirty water or what type of water," she later says. "It didn't matter."

She doesn't know it, but she's in the flooded basement of Rana Plaza.

***

It's 170 miles from Dinajpur to Dhaka, a trek along congested roads that can take up to 10 hours.

Reshma's mother heard of the collapse on TV. But there was no way for her to reach her daughter.

Reshma had sold her mobile phone three days earlier to help pay rent.

Scrounging up what little change she had lying around, Zubeida boarded a bus to the capital.

She checked the morgue and the hospitals.

She showed a picture of Reshma to every rescuer she met. No one had seen her.

For the first few days, she steadfastly held on to hope. Rescuers had been pulling out survivors from the rubble by the dozens each day. More than 2,000 of them in all.

But as the days passed, the number dwindled. And with it died Zubeida's hopes.

She wandered aimlessly around the disaster site.

Strangers brought her rice, offered her an umbrella, consoled her.

"I wanted my daughter's body," she said. "I wanted a leg or an arm or anything that I could take home and bury."

Surviving the disaster

***

Three minutes without air. Three days without water. Three weeks without food.

That's the survival rule of thumb.

In Reshma's case, circumstances conspired to keep her alive:

The air that seeped into the crevices. The crackers she found. The water she drank.

The complete darkness may have helped too, doctors say.

Without knowing day from night, she couldn't keep track of time. She didn't know officials had determined there was little chance someone could survive past a week under that mountainous pile. She was unaware that the rescue mission had long given way to an operation to recover the dead.

And sometimes, the not knowing keeps one going.

***

"Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar."

What was that? Reshma wonders. She strains to hear.

"Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar."

There it is again, the mellifluous tones of the Muslim call to prayer.

And then ... voices.

She hears voices. Many voices.

"Where's the sound coming from? Where's the sound coming from?" she keeps asking herself.

With a new urgency, she bangs on the walls of mangled metal and cement around her.

Then she sees a sliver of light.

"Bachao! Bachao!" she calls out. Save me! Save me!

But no one hears her.

She takes another rod. With all her might, she jams it through an opening above her.

"Allah," she keeps saying. "Allah, save me."

***

It wasn't lost on Lt. Col. Moazzem Hossain that the mood at the disaster site was changing.

Determination was slowly giving way to dejection.

The pungent stench of death permeated the air.

Rescue workers covered their faces with T-shirts to escape the smell of decaying flesh.

It seeped into their clothes, crawled inside their skin and lungs.

Each body they pulled out took an emotional toll as well.

The number of volunteers had thinned.

By Friday, rescuers had finished scouring the rubble and were drilling their way to the building's basement.

The recovery operation was almost over. They hadn't found a survivor in almost a week.

Then, someone noticed a rod jutting out from an opening, waving wildly.

They heard a woman's frail pleas: "Bachao, bachao."

Slackjawed with disbelief, elated with wonder, they rushed to the spot.

Someone was down there, alive!

"She kept saying, 'Save me, save me,' " Hossain said. "We told her we weren't going anywhere."

A roar went through the crowds that had gathered at the sight. Television channels immediately switched to live coverage.

"Almighty God, you make anything possible," said a man on a loudspeaker as he urged others to pray. "Please help us save her."

For 45 minutes, workers used hand drills and light hammers to remove concrete blocks.

They repeated their assurance:

"Wait, wait, we're coming for you."

****

Minutes from rescue, Reshma finds herself facing a very ordinary dilemma.

"How am I going to come out in front of all these people with no clothes?" she thinks. "I'm a lady." Hers had ripped to shreds from all the crawling.

A rescuer tosses her a flashlight, and she looks around.

Piles of clothes are everywhere, spilling out of crushed boxes.

She picks a purple shalwar kameez and wraps a bright pink scarf around her neck and chest.

Her face is covered with dirt, but she looks fine, she thinks.

Then she waits to emerge from the Earth.

***

Lt. Col. Sharif Ahmed is the commanding officer of the Combined Military Hospital in Savar where Reshma is recovering. He marvels at how rapid her readjustment has been.

Reshma, whose age is listed in hospital papers as "22 ( +/- 2)," is gaining strength every day.

"When she came here, she'd startle to the touch," he said. "She'd have flashbacks if she tried to sleep.

"All normal, considering what she went through."

Now she's smiling, sitting up. And she's inseparable from her mother. The two hadn't always gotten along.

"My heart is bursting with joy," Zubeida said. "I begged God, and he returned her."

Sohel Rana is in jail, nabbed by police as he tried to flee to India. The owners of the factories in Rana Plaza are also in detention.

On Tuesday, after 21 days, the rescue and recovery efforts formally ended.

The disaster has spurred the government and foreign retailers to take a long, hard, critical look at factory safety standards and their roles in policing it.

As for Reshma, she doesn't know what her future holds.

But she knows she's not going back to the garment business.

She ended our interview with a simple request: "Everybody please pray for me."

With the joy she brought to a nation in mourning, many already are.

Follow Saeed Ahmed on Twitter

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