April 24, 2013. It started as a normal day at the Bangladesh Fire Service, where I worked as a firefighter. When the siren sounded at 10:00 am, none of us had any clue how catastrophic the day would turn out to be. The Rana Plaza building had collapsed. When we arrived at the site, there were victims everywhere.
Five of us formed a special team to conduct rescue operations in hard-to-reach areas.
I had to drill through the rooftop to rescue a victim from the rubble. I was able to get deep into the rubble through narrow channels because of my slim build. We worked in 12-hour shifts. I worked like this for three days.
Every second was a matter of life or death. Parts of the building were falling all the time. It was so dangerous. Any of us in the rescue operation could have died at any point.
We were assigned to look for casualties in various locations of the collapsed building site, in various pockets of space within the rubble. It was dark and dangerous, with little oxygen available. We used a microphone to call out, "If there is anyone alive, please make noise," and we spotted and rescued injured individuals one by one.
With the help of my colleagues, I personally saved over 30 people.
I recall rescuing one victim who was beneath the debris. One of his hands was stuck behind a pillar; there were a dozen dead people scattered around. Some suggested chopping off the hand, but I insisted that a doctor come and inject an anaesthetic into his hand to make it numb so that we could pull his hand from the rubble. Unfortunately, the doctor was unable to enter the tiny, dangerous path and had to hand the needle over to us. I gave the man the shot and pulled him out of the rubble with very little injury to his hand.
Fires were erupting in various places of the fallen structure, and two of us were deployed to rescue some victims trapped 60 feet beneath the wreckage. We had to spray water continuously as we started our descent to stop the smoke from killing us. Then suddenly, the water supply stopped, and soon my colleague and I were engulfed in smoke and couldn’t breathe. We screamed for help and soon lost consciousness. We were rescued and sent to the hospital's intensive care unit. Around ten hours later, I opened my eyes.
During the rescue, I noted that the structure of the Rana Plaza building was not properly built and that protective measures were lacking. I also found out that the workers had noticed the cracks in the building and had wanted to leave the building before it collapsed, but they were forced to remain in the building. The Rana Plaza disaster was mostly due to a lack of awareness about safety precautions and potential dangers.
I wanted to do something for the garment industry so that I wouldn't have to see tragedies like Rana Plaza in the future. Rather than respond to rescue efforts after an accident, I wanted to prevent such disasters from occurring in the first place.
So in 2017 I took early retirement from the fire department and began working as a fire safety officer for a garment factory called Dekko Design Ltd.
I now oversee a five-person fire safety team that includes a fire safety supervisor, a firefighter, a technician and a fire engineer.
Fire safety officers are vital in all factories since accidents do not necessarily give you any warning. They can happen anywhere, at any time.
I am secretary of the fire safety committee. We advise workers and factory management by raising awareness, increasing their ability to jointly minimise risks by taking appropriate steps, and changing attitudes so that everyone is aware of and is capable of preventing and responding to any possible fire incident.
On each floor of the factory, I have installed all the latest preventive and safety measures, such as smoke detectors, fire doors, and fire extinguishers. We have different sorts of extinguishers on each floor based on the type of potential danger. We have told colleagues in charge of power to shut off the electrical system from the central control centre if an incident happens, so that even if a worker forgets to turn anything off, a second process will take care of it. We hold trainings every week, using internal resources and frequently engage the support of fire service personnel. We do fire drills on a regular basis, at least twice a year.
Preventive measures are critical in every workplace, including garment factories. Accidents can be avoided if we identify the risk, prepare ourselves, and take the required precautions in advance. This will help us to save lives, money, and valuable property, also ensuring that none of our loved ones are lost.
The ILO’s Better Work programme plays a significant role for us. Its team regularly visits our factories to inspect fire safety measures and other workplace issues. Better Work has provided several trainings to myself and my colleagues. I've worked with Better Work enterprise advisors, who have helped me raise awareness. Sometimes, despite our efforts, gaps remain. However, thanks to strict assessment and inspections from Better Work, we can identify the gaps and take actions to fix them.
The good news is that the situation in garment factories has significantly improved. Workers, management, and everyone else are now communicating with each other, and when everyone is consulted, solutions to problems come automatically. We can tackle any challenge, be it fire safety or any other, if we work together.
And for me, it is a great source of satisfaction to do what I do, serving others and saving lives.This is my greatest achievement in life.