DHAKA, Bangladesh — The death toll in the factory-building collapse in Bangladesh rose to more than 530 on Saturday, a day after the country’s finance minister downplayed the impact of the disaster on the garment industry, saying he didn’t think it was “really serious.”
Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith spoke as the government cracked down on those it blamed for the disaster in the Dhaka suburb of Savar.
It suspended Savar’s mayor and arrested an engineer who had called for the building’s evacuation last week, but was also accused of helping the owner add three illegal floors to the eight-story structure. The building owner was arrested earlier.
The government appears to be attempting to fend off accusations that it is in part to blame for the tragedy because of weak oversight of the building’s construction.
During a visit to the Indian capital, New Delhi, Muhith said the disaster would not harm Bangladesh’s garment industry, by far the country’s biggest source of export income.
“The present difficulties … well, I don’t think it is really serious – it’s an accident,” he said. “And the steps that we have taken in order to make sure that it doesn’t happen, they are quite elaborate and I believe that it will be appreciated by all.”
The government made similar promises after a garment factory fire five months ago that killed 112, saying it would inspect factories for safety and pull the licenses of those that failed. However, that plan has yet to be implemented.
Asked if he was worried that foreign retailers might pull orders from his country, Muhith said he wasn’t: “These are individual cases of … accidents. It happens everywhere.”
Muhith, a long-time government official from a prominent family, has been criticized for insensitive comments in the past – even by his own party. Last year when thousands of small investors lost their savings and poured into the streets seeking government intervention, Muhith said it wasn’t responsible and the investors were at fault.
The official death toll from the April 24 collapse reached 531 Saturday and was expected to climb, making it likely the worst-ever garment-factory accident. It surpassed long-ago disasters such as New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which killed 146 workers in 1911, and more recent tragedies such as a 2012 fire that killed about 260 people in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh that same year that killed 112.
At the site of the collapse, workers used cranes to remove concrete rubble to search for bodies. The official number of missing has been 149 since Wednesday, though unofficial estimates are higher.
“We are still proceeding cautiously so that we get the bodies intact,” said Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hassan Suhwardy, commander of the area’s army garrison supervising the rescue operation.
A government investigator said Friday that substandard building materials, combined with the vibration of the heavy machines used by the five garment factories inside the Rana Plaza building, led to the horrific collapse.
Mainuddin Khandkar, the head of a government committee investigating the disaster, said substandard rods, cement, bricks and other weak materials were used in the building’s construction.
About 15 minutes before the collapse, the building was hit by a power blackout, so its heavy generators were turned on, shaking the weakened structure, he said.
“The vibration created by machines and generators operating in the five garment factories contributed first to the cracks and then the collapse,” he said, adding a final report would be soon submitted to the government.