Last Updated Apr 24, 2013 4:16 PM EDT
SAVAR, Bangladesh With deep cracks visible in the walls, police had ordered a Bangladesh garment building evacuated the day before its deadly collapse, but the factories flouted the order and kept more than 2,000 people working, officials said Thursday. At least 194 people died when a huge section of the eight-story building splintered into a pile of concrete.
The disaster in the Dhaka suburb of Savar came less than five months after a blaze killed 112 people in a garment factory and underscored the unsafe conditions faced by Bangladesh's garment workers, who produce clothes for brands worn around the world. Some of the companies in the building that fell say their customers include retail giants such as Wal-Mart.
Hundreds of rescuers, some crawling through the maze of rubble in search of survivors and corpses, worked through the night and into Thursday amid the cries of the trapped and the wails of workers' relatives gathered outside the building, called Rana Plaza, which housed numerous garment factories and a handful of other companies.
"Save us brother. I beg you brother. I want to live," moaned Mohammad Altab, a garment worker pinned tightly between two concrete slabs and next to two corpses.
"It's so painful here ... I have two little children," Altab said, his voice weak from exhaustion.
Another survivor, whose voice could be heard from deep in the rubble, wept as he called for help.
"We want to live brother, it hard to remain alive here. It would have been better to die than enduring such pain to live on. We want to live, please save us," the man cried.
After the cracks were reported Tuesday, managers of a local bank that also had an office in the building evacuated their workers. The garment factories, though, kept working, ignoring the instructions of the local industrial police, said Mostafizur Rahman, a director of that paramilitary police force.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association had also asked the factories to suspend work starting Wednesday morning, hours before the collapse.
"After we got the crack reports, we asked them to suspend work until further examination, but they did not pay heed," said Atiqul Islam, the group's president.
On Thursday morning, the odor of rotting bodies wafted through holes cut into the building. Junior minister for Home Affairs, Shamsul Haque, said that by late Thursday morning a total of 2,000 people had been rescued from the wreckage.
Brig. Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, who is overseeing army rescue teams, said the death toll had climbed to 194 as of Thursday afternoon.
Dozens of bodies, their faces covered, were laid outside a local school building so relatives could identify them. Thousands of workers' family members gathered outside the building, waiting for news, as thousands of garment workers from nearby factories took to the streets across the industrial zone in protest.
Shikder said rescue operations were progressing slowly and carefully, so that as many survivors as possible could be saved.
He said rescue teams were standing by with heavy equipment and would "start bulldozing the debris once we get closer to the end of the operation. But now we are careful."
He also said the size of the crowd was interfering with getting more rescuers to the scene.
"We are ready with about 1,000 soldiers and rescue workers from other departments. But a huge crowd is obstructing our effort," he said.