and Chris Blake
SAVAR, Bangladesh: The fugitive owner of an illegally constructed building that collapsed and killed at least 377 people was captured Sunday by a commando force as he tried to flee into India. At the disaster site, meanwhile, fire broke out in the wreckage and forced authorities to suspend the search for survivors temporarily.
Mohammed Sohel Rana was arrested in the western Bangladesh border town of Benapole, said Jahangir Kabir Nanak, junior minister for local government. Rana was brought back by helicopter to the capital of Dhaka where he faced charges of negligence.
Rana’s capture was announced by loudspeaker at the disaster site, drawing cheers and applause from those awaiting the outcome of a continuing search-and-rescue operation for survivors of Wednesday’s collapse.
Many of those killed were workers at clothing factories in the building, known as the Rana Plaza, and the collapse was the deadliest disaster to hit the garment industry in Bangladesh that is worth $20 billion annually and is a mainstay of the economy.
The fire that broke out late Sunday night sent smoke pouring from the piles of shattered concrete and halted some of the rescue efforts — including a bid to free a woman who was found trapped in the rubble.
The blaze was caused by sparks as rescuers tried to cut through a steel rod to reach the woman, said a volunteer, Syed Al-Amin Roman. At least three rescuers were injured in the fire, he said. It forced them to retreat while firefighters frantically hosed down the flames.
Officials believe the fire is likely to have killed the trapped woman, said army spokesman Shahinul Islam. Rescue workers had delayed the use of heavy equipment for several hours in the hope that she could be extricated from the rubble first. But with the woman presumed dead, they began using heavy equipment around midnight.
An exhausted and disheveled Rana was brought before reporters briefly at the Dhaka headquarters of the commando team, the Rapid Action Battalion.
Wearing a printed shirt, Rana was sweating as two security officers held him by his arms. A security official helped him to drink water after he gestured he was thirsty. He did not speak during the 10-minute appearance, and he is likely to be handed over to police, who will have to charge him and produce him in court within 24 hours.
A small-time politician from the ruling Awami League party, Rana had been on the run since the building collapsed Wednesday. He last appeared in public Tuesday in front of the Rana Plaza after huge cracks appeared in the building. Witnesses said he assured tenants, including five garment factories, that the building was safe.
A bank and some shops on the first floor closed Wednesday after police ordered an evacuation, but managers of the garment factories on the upper floor told workers to continue their shifts.
Hours later, the Rana Plaza was reduced to rubble, crushing most victims under massive blocks of concrete.
Rana’s arrest was ordered by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is also the Awami League leader.
On Saturday, police arrested three owners of two factories. Also detained were Rana’s wife and two government engineers who were involved in giving approval for the building design. Local TV stations reported that the Bangladesh High Court has frozen the bank accounts of the owners of all five garment factories in the Rana Plaza.