More than 500 bodies have been recovered from the Bangladesh garment-factory building that collapsed last week, authorities said Friday after arresting an engineer who warned the building was unsafe but is also accused of helping the owner add three illegal floors to the structure.
Abdur Razzak Khan worked as the Rana Plaza owner's consultant when the owner made the illegal addition atop his five-storey building, police official Ohiduzzaman said Friday. Khan was arrested Thursday on a charge of negligence.
Owner Mohammed Sohel Rana called Khan to inspect the building after it developed cracks on April 23, local media reported. That night Khan appeared on a private television station saying that after his inspection he told Rana to evacuate the building because it was not safe.
Khan, a former engineer at Jahangirnagar University near Savar, said he drew attention of the government engineers for the building to be examined further.
Police ordered the building evacuated, but witnesses say Rana told people gathered outside the next morning that the building was safe and that garment factory managers told their workers to go inside. It collapsed hours later.
Local mayor suspended
The elected mayor of Savar municipality, Mohammad Refatullah, also has been suspended for alleged negligence in approving the design and layout of the doomed building, said Abu Alam, a top official of the local government ministry.
Alam said an official investigation has found that the mayor ignored rules in approving the design and layout. The mayor is from main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and the opposition BNP has criticized the suspension as politically motivated.
The confirmed death toll reached 501 as workers continued to pull bodies from the wreckage. The building collapse was the deadliest disaster in Bangladesh's $20 billion-a-year garment industry, far surpassing a fire late last year that killed 112 workers at a garment factory that had locked doors and no fire escapes.
Workers were carefully using cranes to remove the concrete rubble Friday morning.
"We are still proceeding cautiously so that we get the bodies intact," said Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hassan Suhwardy, the commander of the area's army garrison supervising the rescue operation.
Many remain missing
The official number of missing has been 149 since Wednesday, though unofficial estimates are higher.
Rana was arrested earlier and is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, which are punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. Authorities have not said if more serious crimes will be added.
The Bangladesh High Court has ordered the government to confiscate Rana's property and freeze the assets of the owners of the factories in Rana Plaza so the money can be used to pay the salaries of their workers.
Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms and Joe Fresh.
The creator of Joe Fresh, Joe Mimran, and Loblaw executive chairman Galen G. Weston said they would keep sourcing materials from Bangladesh but would work with local authorities to improve conditions during a press conference on Thursday morning.
Mimran pledged that any garments from the discount line will be produced in a facility that respects labour laws and local building codes.
Finance minister not worried over economic impact
The finance minister of Bangladesh is playing down the impact of the collapse on his country's garment industry.
Hours after the 500th body was pulled from the debris, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith said that he didn't think it was "really serious."
During a visit to the Indian capital New Delhi, he said the disaster would not harm Bangladesh's garment industry.
When asked if he was worried that foreign retailers might pull orders from his country, the minister said he wasn't.
Then he added, "These are individual cases of accidents. It happens everywhere."
At the site of the collapse, the official death toll reached 501 today and was expected to climb.