Back from the grave

By?Syed Zain Al-Mahmood?Bangladesh?Dhaka Tribune

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.?

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.” His recent book “The Tide Will Turn” published by Steidl in 2020, is listed in New York Time’s ‘Best Art Books of 2020’. Alam received the “International Press Freedom Award” for 2020 from ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’.

One thought on “Back from the grave”

  1. Back from the dead it is….. Extremely sad at what took place. This at least is a story of survival….
    May Sabiha be strong to take forward her hope of building a culture of safety not only in Bangladesh but across the world.

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