04/30/2013 06:42 pm ET

Bangladesh Building Collapse Leaves Officials Still Unable To Estimate Toll

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WASHINGTON -- Relatives of workers still missing in the collapsed Bangladesh factory building say the true number of dead is far greater than the official toll of nearly 400. On an average day, roughly 5,500 garment workers toiled in the building, according to local journalists.

So far, 2,437 survivors have been pulled from the wreckage, possibly leaving thousands dead or otherwise unaccounted for in the April 24 collapse.

On Tuesday, about 700 people stood in line before a police camp set up on the playground of a local school in hopes of learning the whereabouts of their loved ones, Selim Ahmed, a local journalist, told The Huffington Post from Savar. Roughly 300 more waited around the site of the collapse, holding photographs of their missing family members, he said.

Rescuers pulled 12 bodies from the rubble Tuesday, the seventh day of their work, with reports of missing garment workers surpassing 1,300, according to a list prepared by police. In a frantic effort to force the government to reveal the disaster's full toll, relatives protested near the scene of the collapse. Police clubbed some with batons. About 100 others held a sit-in protest in front of the National Press Club, demanding bodies of their missing family members.

"Relatives grew angrier on Tuesday, the second day of rescuers using heavy machinery, as very few bodies were pulled out," said Ashik Hossain, a journalist. "Their suspicion that the government may conceal bodies has grown.

"Relatives have reasons for their suspicions," Hossain added. "There were reports of many people not getting the bodies of their loved ones after previous tragedies, particularly after the Tazreen fire."

Creating further confusion, rescuers and the garment factory owners' association have contradicted one another's estimate of the number of workers. Workers' families said they wonder why the government still hasn't managed to provide its own estimate, even though it already has the owners of the building and the five factories inside it in custody.

In a press briefing Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy disagreed with the police estimate of the number of missing people. He said the army had information that 3,200 people were working in the garment factories housed by Rana Plaza, the building that crumbled.

Suhrawardy said rescuers pulled 2,437 survivors and 385 dead from the wreckage by Tuesday afternoon. The general's number of dead differed from the list prepared by the Red Crescent Society, which put the number at 392 on Monday.
Suhrawardy's estimate of the number of people working in the building also differed slightly from that of the garment manufacturer's association. Atiqul Islam, president of the association, told HuffPost "the figure was 3,120."

Local journalists, who visited Rana Plaza and saw its cracks the day before it crumbled, said factory officers told them there were about 5,500 garment workers working there.

"The number had always been around that figure. There had been unrest in these factories before, and we did report on them using that figure," said Ahmed.

When questioned about the discrepancies, Islam, the association president, hesitated and then said there must be some kind of mismatch. He also suggested that the attendance of workers on the day of the collapse would have been half that of a normal day, due to a countrywide general strike prompted by the opposition political party.

But his claims don't square with reports from journalists on the scene after the collapse. Even though workers were aware of the cracks, the factory owners and the building owner, Sohel Rana, a ruling party politician, apparently forced all the workers to clock in that day, threatening to dock their pay if they failed to show up.

"It was the last week of the month. The chance of any worker not showing up is very slim, given that they earn so tiny an amount that they cannot afford it," said Selim Ahmed.

Allegations of undercounting casualties surfaced a day after media reports saying the Bangladesh government had refused offers from other countries to help expedite the rescue and recovery of bodies. Angered by the plodding response, workers resorted to protesting when the search for survivors was declared finished on Sunday, even though there were reports of people still alive in the rubble.

Suhrawardy, who is leading the rescue operation, said the reports of the rebuffed help were true. He said it would still require 72 hours for the foreign help to arrive. The government repeatedly has said it was capable of completing the rescue on its own.

On Tuesday, workers continued their demonstrations in Savar, the major garment industry area, vandalising roughly 200 vehicles on highways and prompting a crackdown from police that left at least 200 injured. Workers and their families stopped vehicles as they carried wreckage away from the site, searching it for bodies before workers dumped it in the river.