SAVAR, Bangladesh – The fugitive owner of an illegally constructed building that collapsed and killed at least 377 people was captured by commandos as he tried to flee into India. At the disaster site, meanwhile, fire broke out in the rubble and forced authorities to suspend the search for survivors temporarily.
Mohammed Sohel Rana was arrested Sunday in the western 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 worked 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, supplies global retailers 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 likely killed the trapped woman, army spokesman Shahinul Islam said. 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.
He did not speak during the 10-minute appearance and 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 political operative 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 Rana assured tenants, including five garment factories, that the building was safe. Police, however, ordered an evacuation. A bank and some first-floor shops closed, but managers of the garment factories on the upper floors told workers to continue their shifts.
Hours later, the Rana Plaza was reduced to rubble, crushing most victims under massive blocks of concrete. Local authorities said the construction permit was issued for a five-story building, not the eight floors that were built.
Rana’s arrest was ordered by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League leader.
On Saturday, police arrested three owners of two factories. Also detained were Rana’s wife and two government engineers involved in approving 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.
A garment manufacturers’ group said the factories in the building employed 3,122 workers, but it was not clear how many were inside when it fell. About 2,500 survivors have been accounted for.
In a rare bit of good news, a female worker was pulled out alive Sunday. Rescuer Hasan Akbari said when he tried to extricate a man next to the woman, “he said his body was being torn apart. So I had to let go. But God willing, we will be able to rescue him with more help very soon.”