“I called but nobody heard me. I heard noises, but nobody listened to me.”
But when a rescue worker finally heard her faint cries 17 days after the collapse of her factory, Reshma became an instant heroine, a ray of hope for a nation numbed by one of world’s worst industrial disasters.
Details about how the seamstress survived the cave-in that killed more than 1,000 people have yet to emerge, but rescuers said the 18-year-old clung to life with dried food and a bottle of water.
In a narrow pocket in the pancaked building, she found three other survivors. They died one after another but Reshma battled on.
Her brother, Zahidul Islam, told AFP that Reshma had been a fighter all her life.
Born in a remote village in the border district of Dinajpur, known for its lush paddy fields, she was the youngest of an impoverished family of five children.
“She was married to a villager at 16 but he left her,” he said. “Two years later she came to Dhaka on her own, finding a job at a garment factory. We asked her to marry again. She said she wanted to support our family.”
Islam, who is a street vendor and his brother a rickshaw-puller, said Reshma earned about $50-$60 a month, a little more than the average $40 a Bangladeshi garment worker earns — among the world’s lowest industrial wages.
“She would do over-time almost every day so that she could send part of her income to us every month,” said Islam, who said he had visited every hospital and mortuary and “checked every dead body they pulled out” to find his sister.
“Then the news came this afternoon that a woman called Reshma has been found alive,” said Islam, calling her survival “a miracle”.
“I saw her face as they brought her out. There she was — my sister.”
Reshma is one of a vast number of women who have taken up sewing in the garment industry to steer their own destiny in a patriarchal society where 90 percent of people are Muslim.
“She represents the best of Bangladesh, the nation’s resilience in the face of unbelievable hardship, its courage, its strength, its determination to never give up whatever the odds,” said Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune.
“She has captured the heart and the imagination of the entire country. After the bad news of the past few weeks and indeed months, she gave us something to cheer about, and rekindled hope and a sense of optimism,” he added.
As Reshma was battling to survive beneath the rubble, the impoverished country of 153 million was mourning the deadliest industrial disaster in its history, adding to the devastating floods and cyclones that regularly afflict the low-lying nation.
More than 3,000 workers were on shift on the morning of April 24 when the garment factory complex suddenly caved in. The death toll has climbed to 1,053.
But Reshma clung to life even though the painstaking manual search for survivors has long since ended and cranes and bulldozers were brought in to slice through the concrete mountain as the focus shifted from finding survivors to the recovery of bodies.
Her dramatic survival story comes after the country’s hopes were raised and then dashed earlier in the recovery operation when rescuers failed in an televised attempt to pull another survivor from the rubble.
Widow Shahina Akter’s vain struggle to live made her one of the tragic public faces of the disaster as she pleaded with rescuers to release her so she could be reunited with her toddler son.
Workers had almost extracted her when a worker using a mechanical cutter started a fire which burnt her to death.
On Friday, authorities said they were close to wrapping up recovery operations, hours after the death toll crossed the 1,000 mark.
And then came the faint call for help.
“My name is Reshma, please save me — please save me, brother.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]