SAVAR, Bangladesh — An eight-storey building containing several garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh on Wednesday, killing at least 82 people and further highlighting safety problems in the clothing industry.
Only the ground floor of the Rana Plaza in the town of Savar just outside the capital Dhaka remained intact when the block -- which one minister said was illegally constructed -- imploded at about 9:00 am (0300 GMT).
Armed with concrete cutters and cranes, hundreds of fire service and army rescue workers struggled to find survivors in the mountain of concrete and mangled steel, which resembled the aftermath of an earthquake.
Corpses and the injured were pulled from the higher reaches of the pile of flattened floors via makeshift slides made from cloth that just hours earlier was being cut into shirts and trousers for export to Western markets.
"The whole building collapsed within minutes, giving most garment workers no chance to escape," Zehadul Islam, a senior officer in the fire department, told AFP.
"The rescue work is in full swing, but it'll take days to complete the task. It's a huge tragedy," he added.
The cries of people inside the rubble begging for rescue could be heard as thousands of relatives waited anxiously nearby, some chanting the name of Allah. "Save us please!" a woman worker cried from inside. "We're 30 people here. Please save us."
Survivors complained that the building had developed cracks on Tuesday evening, triggering an evacuation, but they had been ordered back to the production lines.
"The managers forced us to rejoin and just one hour after we entered the factory the building collapsed with a huge noise," said a 24-year-old worker who gave her first name as Mousumi.
Two of the factories in the building -- New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms -- were making clothing for clothing retailers Mango of Spain and Benetton of Italy, according to campaign group Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity.
New Wave Style lists Mango and Benetton among its top buyers on its website. Neither company could be immediately reached for comment by AFP.
Tessel Pauli, a spokeswoman for the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign, said the accident was "symptomatic" of problems in Bangladesh where foreign buyers often overlook safety problems in their hunt for higher profits.
"These accidents represent a failure of these brands to make safety a priority. They know what needs to be done and they are not doing it," Pauli told AFP.
The accident will likely pile more pressure on the bargain-hunters as the disaster came just months after a blaze in the Tazreen factory, which was making apparel for Walmart and others, left 111 people dead.
In the wake of that tragedy, the US threatened to cut some duty-free facilities for Bangladeshi products.
The Muslim-majority country has the second-biggest clothing industry in the world, but it is plagued by regular accidents and demonstrations from workers demanding better wages and working conditions.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a national day of mourning for Thursday when flags will fly half-mast in memory of the victims.
Hiralal Roy, a senior emergency ward doctor at the nearby Enam Hospital where victims were being taken, told AFP that the death toll was 82 and at least 1,000 injured people had been treated at the hospital.
"Most of the dead are garment workers. The toll will rise as the condition of some of the injured was critical," he told AFP, adding the hospital had appealed for emergency blood donations.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said that the factories inside the building employed more than 2,600 workers.
Local media said the owner of the building was a local youth wing chief of the ruling party. He was rescued alive from the rubble.
Building collapses are relatively common in Bangladesh as developers often flout construction regulations when erecting multi-storey structures.
More than 70 people were killed when a multi-storey garment factory collapsed in the Savar area in 2005.