Shahina; the tragic ‘last survivor’ in Bangladesh disaster

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Widow Shahina Akter’s vain 110-hour struggle to survive in the collapsed Bangladesh factory block has made her one of the tragic public faces of the nation’s worst industrial disaster.

Rescuers said the 30-year-old never abandoned hope of getting out alive so she could be reunited with her toddler son, clinging on despite the sweltering heat and surrounding stench of corpses trapped in their concrete tomb.

But her five-day resistance from Wednesday morning to Sunday night came to an end in flames when a worker using a mechanical cutter started a fire that engulfed the wreckage.

On a day of intolerable strain as the death toll continued to climb towards 400, many rescuers were left inconsolable as the last known survivor slipped from their grasp.

“I’ve never seen anyone so brave in my life,” Abul Khayer told AFP, weeping, as he and other firefighters pulled her dead body from the pancaked rubble on Monday.

Akter’s battle to live had gripped the nation which had been watching live television pictures as rescuers squeezed themselves into narrow tunnels and jagged concrete in a race against time to save her.

It was a tragic end to a story that began with Akter’s migration from rural Bangladesh to a Dhaka suburb to work in a squalid, congested garment-making district.

Her journey - like that of so many other Bangladesh workers making garments for Western labels - was prompted by financial need - and usurious moneylenders.

“Our mother had a gallstone operation 20 years ago and we took a 5,000 taka ($60) loan from the money lender. It became 70,000 taka with the huge interest. She and I had to migrate to repay it,” her brother, Jahirul Islam, told AFP.

Akter, the fourth child of a landless farming family from a coastal district, started working when she was only 13 and she was “hard worker,” he said.

“There are days she would work from 8 am in the morning to 10 pm in the night. Some days she would work through the night,” he recalled.

She earned a paltry 4,200 taka ($53) a month but with overtime she could make a couple of thousand more that she would send to her parents, he recounted.

“She also was a very beautiful woman - and the most stubborn,” Islam said.

“She fell in love with another garment worker and married him without our consent. We heard he died in an accident, leaving her three month’s pregnant,” he said.

Islam said his sister’s son became “the center of her life” and she would pick him up after returning from the factory late in the evening.

“She told us that she wouldn’t marry again. Her dream was to ensure a higher education for Robin. She dreamt of making him a doctor or an engineer,” her brother said.

The boy has no idea what happened to his mother. “He plays all day long. But in the night he asks her aunt Jasmine, ‘When will mother come?’” Islam said.

Her heartbroken father, Motaleb Goldar, said the family only learnt on the fourth day after the disaster that Akter was trapped alive under the rubble.

“We prayed. But Allah took her to heaven,” he said.

An unknown number of dead still lie under the wreckage - over 3,000 workers were in the eight-level complex when it collapsed - while hundreds more are in hospital with horrific injuries from severed limbs to fractured skulls.

Seven people have so far been arrested over the disaster, including the owner of the complex, property tycoon Sohel Rana, who was detained as he attempted to cross into India and was flown back to Dhaka.

Among others also facing charges of causing “death by negligence” are two engineers who are alleged to have given the building the all-clear after large cracks were found in the walls the night before the catastrophe.

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