At least 362 people are confirmed dead in the collapse of the 8-story building that housed five garment factories. The death toll is expected to rise further, but it is already the deadliest tragedy to hit Bangladesh's garment industry, which is worth $20 billion annually and is a mainstay of the economy.
Wednesday's collapse and previous disasters in garment factories have focused attention on the poor working conditions of workers who toil for as little as $38 a month to produce clothing for top international brands.
Army Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy, the coordinator of the rescue operations, said they will try to save the nine people first by manually shifting concrete blocks with the help of light equipment such as pick axes and shovels.
"But if we fail we will start our next phase within hours," which would involve manual efforts as well as heavy equipment, including hydraulic cranes and cutters to bore a hole from the top of the collapsed building, he told reporters.
The purpose is to "continue the operation to recover both survivors and dead bodies. In this stage, we have no other choice but to use some heavy equipment. We will start it within a few hours. Manual operation and use of small equipment is not enough," he said.
The work will be carried out carefully so as not to mutilate bodies, he said. All the equipment is in place, "from a small blade to everything. We have engaged many private sector companies which supplied us equipment, even some heavy ones."
In rare good news, a female worker was pulled out alive on Sunday. Hasan Akbari, a rescuer, said when he tried to extricate a man next to the woman, "he said his body was being torn apart. So I had to let go. But God willing, we will be able to rescue him with more help very soon."
On Saturday, police took six people into custody, including three owners of two factories who were placed under arrest. Also under detention are the wife of the building owner who is on the run and two government engineers who were involved in giving approval for the building design. The owner had the approval to construct five floors but he added three more illegally.
A huge crack appeared in the building, Rana Plaza, on Tuesday, but the owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, assured tenants it was safe to go inside. A bank and some shops on the first floor shut their premises on Wednesday after police ordered an evacuation, but managers of the garment factories on the upper floor told workers to continue their shifts.
Hours later the Rana Plaza was reduced to rubble, and most victims were crushed by massive blocks of concrete and mortar falling on them. A garment manufacturers' group said the factories in the building employed 3,122 workers, but it was not clear how many were inside it when it collapsed. About 2,500 survivors have been accounted for.
Working round-the-clock, rescuers have used bare hands and shovels, passing chunks of brick and concrete down a human chain away from the collapsed structure. On the ground, mixed in the debris were several pairs of pink cotton pants, a mud-covered navy blue sock and a pile of green uncut fabric.
The badly decomposed bodies pulled out of the rubble were kept at a makeshift morgue at the nearby Adharchandra High School before being handed over to families. Many people milled around at the school, waving photos of their missing loved ones.
Among those arrested are Bazlus Samad, managing director of New Wave Apparels Ltd., and Mahmudur Rahman Tapash, the company chairman, and Aminul Islam, chairman of Phantom Apparels Ltd.
Rana, the building owner, was a local leader of ruling Awami League's youth front. His arrest, and that of the factory owners, was ordered by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is also the Awami League leader.
The disaster is the worst ever for the country's booming and powerful garment industry, surpassing a fire five months ago that killed 112 people and brought widespread pledges to improve worker-safety standards. But since then very little has changed in Bangladesh, where low wages have made it a magnet for numerous global brands.
Bangladesh's garment industry was the third largest in the world in 2011, after China and Italy, having grown rapidly in the past decade. The country's minimum wage is the equivalent of about $38 a month.
Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, pants and other garments a year.
The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for several major North American and European retailers.
Britain's Primark acknowledged it was using a factory in Rana Plaza, but many other retailers distanced themselves from the disaster, saying they were not involved with the factories at the time of the collapse or had not recently ordered garments from them.
Wal-Mart said none of its clothing had been authorized to be made in the facility, but it is investigating whether there was any unauthorized production.