Bangladesh's prime minister calls for punishment in building collapse

DHAKA, Bangladesh (CNN) -- Bangladesh's prime minster and House leader called Thursday for those responsible for the deadly collapse of an eight-story building outside the capital city of Dhaka to be punished.

"None would be spared," said Sheikh Hasina. "Whoever might be the culprits, and if even they belong our party, they won't go Scot-free."

She said the building should not have been reoccupied after cracks developed in the structure on Tuesday.

"But the workers were forced by the owners of the garment factories to join the work on Wednesday, and suddenly the building collapsed," she said.

Her call came more than a day after the collapse, as rescuers were searching for survivors and thousands of people were taking to the streets to protest lax safety conditions.

By early Friday, the death toll had reached 254, a police official told Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, the national news agency. Hundreds more were feared still trapped inside the pile of rubble, over which the stench of death hovered.

About 8:15 p.m. Thursday, about 36 hours after the collapse, 25 people were rescued "from a place inside the debris in between the first and third floor," Director General Brig. Gen. Ali Ahmed Khan of Fire Brigade and Civil Defense told the news agency. One of the people died en route to the hospital, he said.

He said rescue efforts would continue until 9 a.m. Saturday, 72 hours after the incident. After that, heavy equipment would be used to retrieve the bodies, he said.

Some 2,013 people had been rescued, according to Maj. Gen. Abul Hassan Sarwardy, who is overseeing the effort, according to Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha.

The building fell Wednesday morning, entombing its contents in a pile of broken concrete and twisted metal.

Food and bottles of water were being dropped to areas where people were trapped.

The building housed five garment factories employing about 2,500 workers, a bank and 300 shops, the news agency said.

After cracks appeared in the building Tuesday, many of the workers had expressed concern about its safety, survivors said.

But factory owners told them the building was safe and ordered them to report for work, the survivors said.

"The fact is, we don't know yet how many people were killed actually ... but I can tell you the building was not built in compliance with the (safety) rules and regulations," Home Minister Mahiuddin Khan Alamgir said Wednesday.

The nation's high court ordered the owners of the building and of the factories to appear in court on April 30, CNN affiliate Boishakhi Television said.

Thousands of people protested the collapse in the streets of Dhaka on Thursday. Many carried black flags; some set fires, and others used clubs to break the windshields of passing trucks.

Hundreds of workers from different factories lay siege to the head office of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association at Karwan Bazar in Dhaka.

They demanded the immediate arrest of the factory owners and called for the death penalty for Sohel Rana, the owner of the building.

The owners of the factories and the building housing them had gone into hiding, Savar police said. They are facing cases from regulators and police over the construction of the building and the workers' exposure to risk, the agency said.

Association Vice President Shahidullah Azim said the organization had suspended the five factories' memberships.

The incident is the latest to strike Bangladesh's garment industry, which employs more than 4 million people -- most of them women -- and regularly comes under scrutiny for its slipshod safety standards.

It also raises questions for the Western brands that contract with factories here to make their products. According to BSS, the United States receives 23% of the products -- the largest percentage of any nation.

Ninety percent of the country's buildings are not built according to code, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said. "For this, shall we have to demolish all the buildings right now?" she asked. "Why was there no awareness before building such constructions?"

A rush to help, then mourning

Rescue crews carried off the injured and dead on stretchers Wednesday. Some of them used brightly colored material from the garment factories to cart off the victims.

Some onlookers wept while others dug with their bare hands. "After learning that the building collapsed, I rushed here looking for my wife, but until now I haven't found her," said Siraj Miah.

Abdul Alim, a day laborer, said he heard screams from inside the building.

"We couldn't make our way to get in," said Alim, one of thousands of onlookers who tried to reach trapped victims before military, fire and civil defense rescuers arrived.

Flags nationwide were flying at half-staff Thursday after the government declared a national day of mourning.

Workers told to enter

Authorities say they have not determined the cause of the collapse.

Workers from the garment factories said that after the cracks were discovered Tuesday, managers initially ordered them not to report to work the next day.

But factory owners reversed the order, telling employees that the building was safe, said Marjina Begum, who worked on the sixth floor.

Many workers reported to work Wednesday because they were afraid of losing their jobs, she said. More than a dozen other workers corroborated her story.

Managers for the garment manufacturers housed inside the building could not be reached for comment.

M. Atiqul Islam, president of the garment manufacturers association, said owners kept the factories open only after the building's owner told them the cracks did not indicate a threat to the structure of the building.

Employees of a bank branch were removed from the building Tuesday after the crack was detected and were ordered not to show up Wednesday, according to a statement from the bank cited by the news agency. None of the bank's workers was among the injured or dead, it said.

In addition, a strike had shut a mall housing hundreds of shops on the building's two lowest floors.

Links to retailers

Garment contractors here appeal to merchants because of workers' low wages.

It was not immediately clear which retailers were doing business with the factories.

Previous disasters

The last major building collapse in the country occurred in 2005 in the same area and killed more than 70 people, the national news agency said.

A fire at the Tazreen Fashions Factory in another suburb of Dhaka in November killed at least 112 people. Tazreen had made goods for Walmart and Sears, though both companies said they were unaware that the factory had made goods for them.

Garments account for 80% of Bangladesh's $24 billion in exports.

The country has about 4,500 garment factories where workers make clothes for various international brands. It's on track to surpass China within seven years as the world's largest apparel manufacturer.

Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said the pressure to cut prices results in substandard safety conditions.

"The worse the dangers get, the more business comes in, so the government has no incentive to fix anything," he said. "We ask ourselves every day what it's going to take to fix this."