DHAKA A block housing garment factories and shops collapsed in Bangladesh on Wednesday, killing nearly 100 people and injuring more than a thousand, officials said.
Firefighters and troops dug frantically through the rubble at the eight-storey Rana Plaza building in Savar, 30 km (20 miles) outside Dhaka. Television showed young women workers, some apparently semi-conscious, being pulled out.
One fireman told Reuters about 2,000 people were in the building when the upper floors slammed down onto those below.
Bangladesh's booming garments industry has been plagued by fires and other accidents for years, despite a drive to improve safety standards. In November 112 workers died in a blaze at the Tazreen factory in a nearby suburb, putting a spotlight on global retailers which source clothes from Bangladesh.
"It looks like an earthquake has struck here," said one resident as he looked on at the chaotic scene of smashed concrete and ambulances making their way through the crowds of workers and wailing relatives.
"I was at work on the third floor, and then suddenly I heard a deafening sound, but couldn't understand what was happening. I ran and was hit by something on my head," said factory worker Zohra Begum.
An official at a control room set up to provide information said 96 people were confirmed dead and more than 1,000 injured. Doctors at local hospitals said they were unable to cope with the number of victims brought in.
CRACKS IN BUILDING
Mohammad Asaduzzaman, in charge of the area's police station, said factory owners appeared to have ignored a warning not to allow their workers into the building after a crack was detected in the block on Tuesday.
Five garment factories - employing mostly women - were housed in the building, including Ether Tex Ltd., whose chairman said he was unaware of any warnings not to open the workshops.
"There was some crack at the second floor, but my factory was on the fifth floor," Muhammad Anisur Rahman told Reuters. "The owner of the building told our floor manager that it is not a problem and so you can open the factory."
He initially said that his firm had been sub-contracted to supply Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world's largest retailer, and Europe's C&A. In a subsequent interview he said he had been referring to an order in the past, not current work.
Wal-Mart did not immediately respond to requests for comment. C&A said that, based on its best information, it had no contractual relationship with any of the production units in the building that collapsed.
The website of a company called New Wave, which had two factories in the building, listed 27 main buyers, including firms from Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Canada and the United States.
"It is dreadful that leading brands and governments continue to allow garment workers to die or suffer terrible disabling injuries in unsafe factories making clothes for Western nations' shoppers," Laia Blanch of the U.K. anti-poverty charity War on Want said in a statement.
November's factory fire raised questions about how much control Western brands have over their supply chains for clothes sourced from Bangladesh. Wages as low as $38.50 a month have helped propel the country to no. 2 in the ranks of apparel exporters.
It emerged later that a Wal-Mart supplier had subcontracted work to the Tazreen factory without authorization.
Buildings in the crowded city of Dhaka are sometimes erected without permission and many do not comply with construction regulations.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Biraj; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Andrew Roche)