DHAKA, Bangladesh — Day after day, the drudgery of digging for bodies had progressed at Rana Plaza. Talk of rescuing survivors had faded. This was the recovery phase, and what was being recovered were corpses, the numbers spinning remorselessly forward: 700 dead became 800, then 900, with no end in sight.
By Friday morning, the number had reached past 1,000. Then, late in the afternoon, a soldier from the Bangladeshi Army, standing atop the rubble of the wrecked building, noticed an iron rod that seemed to be moving. There was a noise, a voice. Rescuers hurriedly carved a hole through a concrete pillar. Television stations in Bangladesh cut to the scene: A woman, gasping, was alive in the wreckage, nearly 17 full days after Rana Plaza had collapsed.
A new number was announced: One. A female garment worker named Reshma Begum. A survivor. A miracle.
“Save me!’’ rescuers had heard her shout, before they pulled her into the afternoon light, her face powdered in dust as she was put on a stretcher.
The Rana Plaza collapse is now considered the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. Five factories were operating inside the building when the structure pancaked downward. The carnage was horrific and has focused global attention on unsafe conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories that make clothing for US and European consumers — especially since there were advance warnings that the structure was unsafe.
The rescue of Begum, as described by rescuers and government officials, has offered a temporary respite from the gloom and a startling tale of resilience: She survived in an opening maybe 10 feet by 8 feet in size, high enough for her to stand, within a penumbra of collapsed beams and pillars. Air trickled through the crevices. She found enough food and water to last until two days ago.
“I never dreamed I’d see the daylight again,’’ she told local Somoy TV from her hospital bed, according to news accounts.
Reaction in Bangladesh was euphoric. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rushed to the military hospital where Begum had been taken. Twelve days earlier, April 28, rescuers had worked desperately to save another woman, Shaheena, who was then thought to be the last survivor. She died after a fire broke out in the final hour of the rescue operation.
Begum’s rescue, if amazing, is not without precedent. More than two weeks after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a 16-year-old girl was discovered inside a collapsed home, having survived by eating yogurt and vegetables, and a man was found in the rubble of Port-au-Prince many days after that. Experts say such incidents are extremely rare, however.
At Rana Plaza, recovery crews had little hope of finding a survivor when work began Friday. A five-member army rescue team had begun using heavy machinery to crack into an area of the building’s basement but found it flooded with water. As they worked from the first floor, searching for the source of water, they noticed the moving rod.
‘‘Suddenly we saw the movement of a stick,’’ Major M.M. Moazzem Hossain, a member of the team, said in an interview. ‘‘Someone from the second floor was trying to draw attention by inserting a stick through a narrow hole. When we reached there, we asked, ‘Is there anyone inside?’ ’’
A female voice shouted out, ‘‘Save me!’’
Hossain said the woman had told him her name was Reshma.
‘‘We are with you,’’ he said he had told her.
The soldiers and a group of firefighters began cutting a hole, using a hand drill and hammers, to try to reach her.
‘‘We were aware of the tragic accident during the operation to rescue Shaheena,’’ Hossain said. ‘‘So we were very careful.’’
For an hour, they kept cutting, making a hole about a foot and a half in diameter. Hossain said he squeezed through the hole and helped bring Begum out.