SAVAR, Bangladesh (AP) — Even amid the euphoria over finding a woman alive in the rubble of a garment factory that collapsed more than two weeks ago, rescuers on Saturday returned to the grim task of dismantling the wreckage and retrieving decomposing bodies, knowing there was little chance of finding any more survivors.
The death toll from Bangladesh's worst industrial disaster is more than 1,000 and climbing. More than 2,500 people were rescued in the immediate aftermath of the April 24 disaster, but until Friday, crews had gone nearly two weeks without discovering anyone alive.
Then, in the midst of what had become a grim search for decaying bodies following the world's worst garment industry disaster, rescuers found a woman alive, providing a much-needed boost for the weary workers.
For 17 days, the 19-year-old seamstress lay trapped beneath thousands of tons of wreckage as temperatures outside climbed into the mid-30s Celsius (mid-90s Fahrenheit). She rationed food and water. She banged a pipe in a desperate attempt to attract attention and was fast losing hope of ever making it out alive.
In the ruins of the collapsed eight-story building above her, the frantic rescue operation had long ago ended.
"No one heard me. It was so bad for me. I never dreamed I'd see the daylight again," the seamstress, Reshma Begum, told Somoy TV from her hospital bed after her rescue.
The miraculous moment came when salvage workers finally heard Begum's banging. They pulled her to safety. She was in surprisingly good condition.
"I heard her say, 'I am alive, please save me.' I gave her water. She was OK," said Miraj Hossain, a volunteer who crawled through the debris to help cut Begum free.
Late on Saturday several photographers were allowed to take pictures of Begum. Lying on her hospital bed under a sheet, she looked tired but alert. She was hooked up to a monitor and an intravenous drip.
Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy, the head of the local military units in charge of rescue operations, said Begum told him she was fine. Physicians have advised her to have complete rest, he said.
Col. Azizur Rahman, a doctor at the hospital, said she still suffers from dehydration.
"She is not sleeping well. She is now being provided semi-liquid food," he said.
Her rescue was broadcast on television across Bangladesh. The prime minister rushed to the hospital, as did Begum's family to embrace a loved one they thought they'd never again see alive.
Begum was working on the second floor of the Rana Plaza building on April 24 when the building began collapsing around her. She raced down a stairwell to the first floor, where she was trapped, Suhrawardy said.
Her long hair became stuck under the rubble, but she used sharp objects to cut her hair and release herself, rescue officials said.
"There was some dried food around me. I ate the dried food for 15 days. The last two days I had nothing but water," Begum told the television station. "I had some bottles of water around me."
After the building collapse, Begum's mother, Zobeda Begum, spent sleepless nights rushing from one place to another looking for her daughter, with other family members joining the search. When they found out she had been rescued, they raised their hands in prayer.
"I just could not believe it when I saw her in the hospital," the mother, a frail woman in her 60s, said tearfully.
Before Friday, the last survivor had been found April 28, and even her story ended tragically. As workers tried to free Shahina Akter, a fire broke out and she died of smoke inhalation.
Crews were instead engaged in the painstaking work of trying to remove bodies so the victims' families could bury their loved ones. They eventually approached the section where Begum was trapped.
"I heard voices of the rescue workers for the past several days. I kept hitting the wreckage with sticks and rods just to attract their attention," Begum said.
She finally got the crews' attention when she took a steel pipe and began banging it, said Abdur Razzak, a warrant officer with the military's engineering department who first spotted her in the wreckage.
The rescue crews ordered the cranes and bulldozers to stop immediately and used handsaws and welding and drilling equipment to cut through the iron rods and debris still trapping her. They gave her water, oxygen and saline as they worked.
After 40 minutes, she was free.
"She was fine, no injuries. She was just trapped. The space was wide," said Lt. Col. Moyeen, an army official at the scene who uses only one name.
Begum 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.
Begum's sister Asma said she and her mother kept a vigil for the seamstress, who is from the rural Dinajpur district, 270 kilometers (170 miles) north of Dhaka. She said they had been losing hope amid the endless string of grim days, when scores of bodies and no survivors were removed from the rubble.
"We got her back just when we had lost all our hope to find her alive," she told Somoy TV. "God is so merciful."
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose government has come under criticism for its lax oversight over the powerful garment industry, raced to the hospital by helicopter to meet Begum and congratulated the rescuers, officials said.
"This is an unbelievable feat," Hasina was quoted as saying by her assistant, Mahbubul Haque Shakil.
Begum lived in a rented house with her sister, who worked at a different garment factory.
Officials said Saturday that 1,081 bodies had been recovered so far from the ruins of the building, which housed five garment factories employing thousands of workers. They said 780 bodies had been handed over to families.
The disaster has raised alarm about working conditions in Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry, which provides clothing for major retailers around the globe.
Over the last week identification of the bodies being recovered from the debris has become harder because they are badly decomposed, officials said.
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 such equipment.
The owner and eight other people, including the owners of the garment factories, have been detained.
Hossain reported from Dhaka.