On the morning of April 24, 2013, at about 8:45 a.m., the Rana Plaza, a nine-story building housing factories and offices, collapsed in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. More than 3,500 people were in the building at the time, and 1,129 died in the wreckage. Mainuddin Khandaker, a senior official at the Ministry of Home Affairs, began his investigation that evening.
Six weeks later, Khandaker is sitting in a carved wooden armchair in his living room. A soft-spoken man in his early 60s who wears gold-rimmed glasses, he lives in Dhaka's government district. It's been dark outside for a while, and a single fluorescent tube, surrounded by fluttering moths, is the only light in the room. Khandaker is balancing a bowl of dark berries on his knees.
In the last few years, he has investigated more than 40 cases of factories that either collapsed or burnt down. But none of those accidents approached the scale of Rana Plaza, the biggest industrial accident in the country's history. The 493-page report Khandaker wrote contains witness statements, photos and structural engineering calculations. It will probably remain under lock and key. An investigative report on the textile industry has never been published in Bangladesh, he says.
Khandaker goes into the next room and returns with a stack of paper, the summary. He eats a berry from the bowl and carefully spits the seed onto the saucer. "Time pressure, lots of money, a lack of scruples and greed -- everything came together on that day," he says.
Dhaka, Basti Madjipur, April 24, 5:30 a.m.
The day began early in Basti Madjipur, a neighborhood in Dhaka's northwestern district of Savar.
A "basti" is a sprawling collection of simple concrete houses with sheet and corrugated metal roofs, separated by labyrinthine paths, where half-naked children play between puddles and ponds. There are chicken sheds everywhere, and the neighborhood is also home to a drove of small pigs. About 100,000 people live there. Everyone works in the nearby textile factories, and at the time, many were employed at the Rana Plaza building.
Mohammed Badul and his wife Shali got up at 5:30 a.m. that morning. Badul worked in the packaging department of a company called Phantom Apparels Ltd., in the Rana Plaza. His wife was a seamstress in another factory.
They live in a 12-square-meter (130-square-foot) room with a concrete floor, together with their nine-year-old son Sabbir. They own a bed, a dresser and dishes, some clothing and a TV set. A faucet and a shower are outside.
Like most mornings, Shali cooked rice with a little oil and a small amount of vegetables to bring to work as lunch for her and her husband. They didn't eat breakfast. At about 7 a.m., they left on foot for their respective factories. Shali had given her husband his lunch in a tin can. The one-hour lunch break began at 1 p.m.
The normal shift usually lasted until 8 p.m., but workers were often kept later for overtime, until 10 p.m. Shali went shopping on the way home, arriving at the house by around 11 p.m. Her son was already sleeping.
In 11 years, the couple has saved 20,000 taka, or €200 ($260). Mohammed Badul dreams of opening a barber shop one day.
Another couple, Fahima and her husband Abu Said also live in Basti Madjipur. Both are from the village of Bodergond in northern Bangladesh. They came to Dhaka six years ago, forced to leave their village and look for work so that they could repay their debts. Abu Said had borrowed 50,000 taka because he wanted to start his own company.
Together, they earn about 12,000 taka a month, of which they are able to save about 500 taka, or €5. They don't have a bed, or even a mattress. Abu Said indulges in only one luxury item: He occasionally buys a tin of chewing tobacco, which he always carries in his back pocket.
Fahima and Abu Said also have a son, five-year-old Shahin. A neighbor takes care of the boy when Fahima and her husband are at the factory. Their plan is to persevere. After a few years, they hope to return to their village with a little money in their pockets. Their goal in life is to create a future for Shahin.
Two sisters, Shefali and Shirin Akter, 20 and 18, live in a house on the same street. They came to Dhaka as children, left to their own devices, with nothing but two pairs of trousers and two shirts. Their little brother Nawshad joined them later. He is their hope, and they are working and saving money to pay for his education. They own four cups, a double bed, a TV set and two pieces of soap. They also own a basket with some clothing, three pairs of flip-flops, a pot, cutlery and some dishes.
Like most of the people who have come to this neighborhood, Shefali, Shirin and Nawshad live in one room, for which they pay a monthly rent of 2,000 taka. Many of these houses were built by the same man who responsible for the construction of Rana Plaza: Sohel Rana, the godfather of Madjipur.
Rana is a short, puffy man in his mid-30s. He lives on Bazar Road, in a five-story house at the end of a path, with a metal gate to keep out intruders. Rana takes bodyguards with him when he leaves the house. He is a member of the youth organization of the ruling Awami Party, and recently had posters of himself hung up on walls in his basti. Some in the neighborhood already see Rana as a member of parliament.
But he had a problem on that morning. Cracks had appeared in the walls and load-bearing columns of the Rana Plaza building. The tenants, especially those pesky factory owners, were concerned.
Dhaka, Madjipur Bazar Road, Rana Plaza, 7:30 a.m.
A few hundred people had gathered in front of Rana Plaza. Mohammed Badul, the man who was saving for a barber shop, was there, and so were Fahima and Abu Said, the couple that doesn't even own a mattress. They were afraid. Their shift was to begin in half an hour -- that is, if it began at all.
Rana Plaza was taller than the surrounding buildings, with lower floors that were sided with a reflective blue glass material. Eight floors were already occupied, and construction had recently begun on a ninth. The words "Rana Plaza" were written in decorative letters above the entrance.
A branch of Brac Bank was on the second floor, and a sign indicating that the bank was closed had been hanging on the door since the day before. Not a good sign, Fahima thought to herself.
There were 10 million taka in the bank vault. The bank employees were in such a hurry to get to a safe place that they had left the money behind.
Sohel Rana was standing at the entrance, talking insistently to the factory owners. He told them that a few cracks were nothing to fear, and that someone would take care of the problem. On the previous day, managers had shut down all five textile factories and sent home some 3,500 people -- including Fahima, Mohammed Badul and the two sisters, Shefali and Shirin -- in the middle of the day. Then experts came and inspected the cracks.
Could the shift begin? Or was the building beyond repair? Many people were sent to their deaths because Rana was the person who ended up making that decision.
Born in Dhaka after his father moved there in the early 1980s, Rana grew up in the city, where he attended the Adhar Chandra High School. "Making money was the most important thing to him," says Khandaker, the investigator. To achieve his goal, Rana bought some land.
When he was mapping out his career, Dhaka was already a sprawling city. Hundreds of thousands migrated there from the countryside each year, and new factories were constantly being built. These workers needed housing, and the manufacturers needed production facilities.
Rana's father had property early on, and his son bought more. It was swampy land, which meant that it was cheap. Rana had the swamp filled with sand and garbage, and in 2007, he began the construction of a multistory building there. Rana Plaza was to be the beginning of a great career.
Normally, the approval of six government agencies is required to build a factory in Bangladesh: the Ministry of Industries, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the office of fire safety and civil protection, the office of the environment, the Board of Investment, and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Rana circumvented these requirements by declaring the plaza as an office and retail building. He used his father's contacts and donated money to the campaign of a member of parliament to get it approved. That's how the Bangladeshi system works. A country growing as quickly as Bangladesh can't spend too much time on regulations. Once a building has been erected and is filled with machines and people working to bring money into the country, no one asks about permits.
Rana opened the building in 2008. It had been built hastily with thin subfloors, and the bricklayers had apparently never built such a tall building before. Too much sand was added to the concrete, and the ground was too soft -- all problems that investigator Khandaker would later discover.
Dhaka, Rana Plaza, 7:55 a.m.
The factory managers were still arguing with Rana. On the one hand, they feared for their safety. On the other hand, they had their delivery deadlines to consider. Garment makers who do not complete an order properly risk losing business in the future. In the Bangladeshi system, delays are not an option.
Rana had almost prevailed. He called in two experts from the district administration with whom he had consulted with on the previous day. One of them was a structural engineer, and together they concluded that the building was good for at least another 100 years. According to Khandaker's report, Rana bribed the officials.
In the years after opening the building, Rana added two more stories, but this time he didn't even bother to obtain building permits. He leased the upper floors, each with about 3,500 square meters (37,700 square feet) of floor space, to garment manufacturers. The Rana Plaza also had a basement floor, which contained an underground parking garage and Rana's office. The first and second floors were rented to the bank and small shops. Five textile factories were housed in the floors above that: New Wave Bottoms Ltd., Ether Tex Ltd., Phantom Apparels Ltd., Phantom Tac Ltd. and New Wave Style Ltd. The factories, which supplied discount clothing to stores and department store chains in Europe, the United States and Canada, employed about 3,500 workers. There were hundreds of electric sewing machines, arranged in long rows, on each floor.
Rana was probably able to amortize the building in only a few years. After that, it generated an estimated €1.5 million in annual rent revenues. Rana built new housing for workers in his basti, entered the drug business and allegedly ordered four contract killings. Investigator Khandaker says that Rana himself was a drug addict. He was also reportedly a drinker and, most of all, consumed phensedyl, a popular cough syrup known as "purple drank."
"Don't make my life miserable," Rana told the factory owners who were worried about safety in the building. Then he demonstratively disappeared into his basement office, which may have convinced others that it was safe to enter the building.
Dhaka, Rana Plaza, 8:00 a.m.
The shift began on time. Fahima and her husband Abu Said had stamped their punch cards and were now on the third floor, which was occupied by New Wave Bottoms, and where cracks were clearly visible in the walls and columns. Fahima was sewing belt loops, while Abu Said worked in the packaging department.
A men's shirt goes through the following production steps: After cutting, the front and back side are sewn, followed by the collar, button facing, breast pocket, buttonholes and buttons, and finally the sleeves. Then the shirt is sewn together and goes into final production, where it is ironed, labeled, wrapped around a piece of cardboard and then packaged.
At Phantom Apparels on the fourth floor, Mohammed Badul, who wanted to become a barber, was stacking jeans into cardboard boxes.
Dhaka, with a population of 16 million, is a city of immigrants, a hated and yet coveted place. Some, like Fahima and Abu Said, go there with the aim of saving money and eventually returning to their villages. Others, like Badul, want to stay and build a new life in Dhaka. For them, the garment factory is merely a station, something that has to be endured, a place that offers at least some hope and keeps them from starving.
Rana was different, at least judging by the stories that were told about him. While others endured their fate, he was all business, a man who gambled with the lives of 3,500 people.
Thousands of industrial sewing machines were used in the Rana Plaza. But because the power supply in Dhaka is notoriously unreliable, with days on which the grid shuts down up to 50 times, there were four diesel generators on the upper factory floors, each weighing several metric tons. Generators of that size trigger strong vibrations when they start running.
On this morning, three floors about Badul, on the seventh floor, the sisters Shefali and Shirin were working at New Wave Style, sewing men's shirts.
About 800 people, 80 percent of them women, were crowded together on this floor. They worked in five rows, with 70 industrial sewing machines per row. There were no fans and there was no air-conditioning. Workers were discouraged from leaving their stations. Nevertheless, Shefali went to the bathroom occasionally to spray a little water into her face. Shirin was sewing collars.
"Helpers," or people who pass material to the workers and switch back and forth between departments, are at the bottom of the hierarchy on a sewing floor. Next up the ladder are the "sewing operators," women like Shefali and Shirin. Each group of sewing operators has a supervisor, who makes sure that they keep up the pace.
Above the supervisor is a "line chief," who is in charge of one of the five rows. All five line chiefs at New Wave Style were men. The person responsible for the entire floor was called the "floor in charge."
There were 10 levels in the hierarchy. Shefali and Shirin were at the second level. Shefali hoped to be promoted to line chief one day, which would mean a pay increase to 14,000 taka. It would also help secure the future of her brother Nawshad.
Dhaka, Rana Plaza, about 8:30 a.m.
On the third floor, Fahima was having trouble concentrating. She kept looking over at the cracks, which had now spread to the fourth floor, where Badul was packaging jeans.
On this morning, about 3,500 people had gone to work in the Rana Plaza, despite the obvious risk of collapse. Why?
Part of the answer can't be found in Bangladesh, but in our cities, at clothing retailers like H&M, Zara, Next and Primark, stores where T-shirts are sold at rock-bottom prices of €4.99 or €3.99, almost nothing for Westerners. These kinds of prices require that buyers and producers know as little about each other as possible. Customers in London or Munich don't really want to hear about the conditions under which a T-shirt was made. They just want the T-shirt.
Fahima and her fellow workers, for their part, have no idea that the work on which their survival depends has almost no value in Western countries, and that a T-shirt is practically a disposable item.
In stores like H&M and Zara, the story of a product disappears behind loud music and flashy branding, screens behind which agents, intermediaries and middlemen ensure that the global barter system works. These agents also exist in Dhaka. They receive orders from the large chains, which they then pass on to local manufacturers.
This is how it works: The client, such as H&M, sends a design sample to Dhaka. The middleman, or agent, is familiar with manufacturers and factories and selects the right one for the job.
In years gone by, most factory owners in Bangladesh have accepted more orders than they could process. They were under pressure to pay wages, pay off loans and pay rent to people like Rana. To avoid the risk of losing an order, they accepted the fact that they would probably have to send some of the work to a subcontractor. This led to constant time pressure.
This also puts employees under pressure, who have almost no room to object. Their monthly income is so marginal that, on that morning, Fahima and her fellow garment workers didn't dare contradict the factory owner when he ordered them to get to work. If they had refused, Fahima, Shirin, Shefali and Badul risked losing one or two months' wages, which would have depleted their savings.
At about 8:30 a.m., the power went out in the Rana Plaza, and the heavy generators began running automatically.
Dhaka, Rana Plaza, about 8:45 a.m.
It took between 6 to 10 minutes for the first column to collapse in the southwest corner of the building. Everything happened very quickly after that. Shefali felt the floor giving way beneath her feet. She looked over at the collar department to see if she could find her sister, but Shirin wasn't there. Suddenly the floor was gone and Shefali began falling.
Four floors down, on the third floor, Fahima, who was sewing belt loops, felt a powerful blow. Everything descended into dust and darkness. She ran toward the packaging department to join her husband, Abu Said. She heard the supervisor shouting: Everyone out! Then they were near the stairwell. There were people everywhere, screaming, crying and whimpering, pushing their way to the exit in a panic. Wait, Fahima's husband shouted, or we'll be trampled. Then they were separated.
When the building collapsed, Mohammed Badul was in the middle of the fourth floor. The stairwell was too far away, but he managed to save himself by taking shelter under a heavy wooden table.
Rana was in his office when the building collapsed. The former underground garage proved to be relatively safe, almost like an air raid shelter. He was covered in rubble, but uninjured.
The collapse lasted hardly more than 90 seconds. "The building was pressed together like a sandwich," says Khandaker, the investigator.
The Rana Plaza was a building that should never have existed. It was built on swampy ground, with poor materials, a lack of know-how and inadequate inspections, and yet it is not an isolated case. Experts estimate that about a third of the 240,000 buildings used for industrial purposes in and around Dhaka are in a similarly dangerous state.
These factories ought to be shut down immediately, but that won't happen. The Bangladeshi system cannot survive without this extremely dangerous way of building, or without people who break the rules, like Rana. In fact, the system produces people like Rana.
The Bangladeshi economy has only one trump card: the world's lowest wages. It also has 160 million people who patiently allow themselves to be exploited, because doing backbreaking work in Dhaka for 12 hours a day is still better than being landless and hungry in a half-flooded village. The garment industry accounts for about 80 percent of export revenues. A country in Bangladesh's position, constantly in danger of losing orders to Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia instead, cannot use the excess demand generated by the West's insatiable consumption habits to its advantage.
That's why production remains cheaper than anywhere else in the world. It's also why Bangladesh is safeguarding its role as the world's sewing machine, a garment factory in the form of a country, a giant sewing room with its own national anthem and a seat at the United Nations. Bangladesh's economy, controlled by garment makers, is in a permanently overheated state, achieving a growth rate of 7 percent, one of the highest in the world.
While the Western consumer may feel a sense of outrage and pity upon seeing images of the collapse, he is also quick to forget, and before long he is reaching for the cheapest products once again at stores like H&M and Walmart.
Dhaka, Rana Plaza, Late Afternoon
Khandaker learned of the collapse on the afternoon of April 24. He had been in meetings since early morning, and was only able to drive to the site of the disaster that evening. But first he put together a team.
Shefali, the older of the two sisters, was already in a hospital bed at Enam Medical College. She had been pulled from the wreckage at about 10 a.m. She could no longer feel her legs, and her hip was fractured. There was no news of her sister. It was 14 days after the accident before she finally learned that Shirin had not survived.
Mohammed Badul, the man who wanted to become a barber, was trapped under the heavy wooden table that he had hoped would protect him. A fellow worker who was crouching nearby would later find Badul's wife Shali and tell her about her husband. "If I don't get out of here, tell my wife and my son that I was thinking of them," he'd said.
Badul couldn't see his coworker, because they were separated by a broken column, but they were able to speak with each other. The woman had a bottle of water, but Badul had no water. Perhaps it was that small ration of water that kept the woman alive until rescue workers found her. At some point in between, Badul died in his refuge, probably of thirst.
Fahima, the woman who was working so that her son could go to school, survived by crouching in a hollow space between two floors, a space only half a meter wide. She was rescued on the evening of the disaster with severe head injuries. Her husband Abu Said died in the wreckage. Fahima would identify him 16 days later, using the number on his punch card and the tin of chewing tobacco in the pocket of his trousers.
Sohel Rana quickly fled the scene of the accident. He was one of the first to be saved, when his bodyguards located him by calling his mobile phone and pulled him out of the wreckage.
He was arrested at the Indian border four days after the accident and taken to the central prison in Dhaka by helicopter.
Khandaker questioned Rana several times, and the broken, weeping man he encountered was a far cry from the image he had projected in the past.
"Don't make my life miserable." Those were the words with which Rana had convinced the factory owners to drive their workers into the building. Perhaps those words are a reflection of modern-day Bangladesh, with its recklessness, impatience and knowledge that there is no alternative.
Khandaker, the investigator, has eaten the berries he picked, and the summary of his investigative report is sitting on his knees.
Officially, Khandaker says that the Rana Plaza disaster was an isolated incident, not a system failure. This verdict allows Bangladesh to continue as everything as it was before. The system has been saved, and that was Khandaker's job.
Unofficially, at the end of a long conversation, he says: "That day, that April 24, was the inevitable result of the global market."
Shefali, Fahima and Shali still live in Basti Madjipur. Shefali spends the entire day lying in the bed she once shared with her sister. She can only sit upright for a few minutes a day. She hopes that the pain in her hip will eventually go away, and that she will be able to work again. Shefali, Fahima and many other survivors told their stories to SPIEGEL.
There are still rolls of thread, shoes, zippers and quality reports lying in the wreckage where the Rana Plaza once stood. It's even possible to make out some of the entries in the reports, like "broken stitch" or "top stitch uneven."
There are also hundreds of labels for brands like Joe Fresh, Mascot, Benetton, Walmart, Primark, Bonmarché, The Children's Place and German discounter KiK.