SAVAR, Bangladesh: The heat in the rubble was sweltering. It closed in on his body like the darkness around him, making it hard to breathe. Working by the faint glow of a flashlight, he slithered through the broken concrete and spotted a beautiful young woman, her crushed arm pinned beneath a pillar. She was dying, and the only way to get her out was to amputate.
But Saiful Islam Nasar had no training, and almost no equipment. He’s a mechanical engineer who just days earlier rushed hundreds of miles from his hometown in southern Bangladesh when he heard the Rana Plaza factory building had collapsed and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of garment workers were trapped.
He also understood that maimed women can be cast from their homes.
“I asked her, ‘Sister, are you married?’ She said ‘Yes.’ I asked her, ‘If I cut off your arm, will your husband take you again?’ She said, ‘My husband loves me very much.’ And then I started to cut,” he said.
He had brought a syringe loaded with pain-killer — his father was a village medic, and had taught him how to give injections — and he cut through her arm with a small surgical blade. It was easier than he expected because the arm had already been so badly damaged.
He pointed at fading specks of blood staining his vest and pants. He began to cry. “There was no alternative,” he said.
Bangladesh is well-versed in tragedy, a country where floods, ferry sinkings, fires and cyclones strike with cruel regularity. But with state services riven by dysfunction and corruption, often the only hope is the person beside you.
It is a country that makes heroes out of everyday citizens.
Many of the first responders at Rana Plaza were men like Nasar — neighborhood residents, fellow garment workers, relatives of the missing and charity workers — and they repeatedly took some of the most dangerous work. Using little more than hammers, hacksaws and their bare hands, they crawled into tiny holes in the wreckage, breaking through concrete and steel bars and working around the clock to drag out the victims.
They knew they were risking their lives.
Hemaet Ali, a 50-year-old construction worker who came to volunteer, told the people around him that his identity card, with his home address, was in his shirt pocket.
“If I die inside, please make sure that my body reaches my family,” he told them.
Nasar came to Savar with 50 other men from the small volunteer organization he runs, Sunte Ki Pao. Normally, they assist people who have been in traffic accidents, offering basic first aid, securing valuables and contacting relatives. During seasonal floods, they help however they can when the waters rush into town. Nothing had prepared them to work the front line of their country’s largest industrial accident.
“It was beyond imagination,” he said Monday, six days after the collapse, when the search for survivors had given way to the search for bodies, and heavy equipment had replaced the rescuers.
Over six days, he pulled six people out alive, and removed dozens of bodies.
“The images of the bodies flash in my mind,” he said.