DHAKA, Bangladesh -- A seamstress buried in the wreckage of a collapsed garment factory building for 17 days was rescued Friday, a miraculous moment set against a scene of unimaginable horror, where the death toll shot past 1,000.
Reshma survived, in remarkably good shape, by eating dried food that was in her area and drinking spare amounts of water with her. She was discovered on the second floor of the eight-story Rana Plaza building, where crews have been focused on recovering bodies, not rescuing survivors, for much of the past two weeks.
"I heard voices of the rescue workers for the past several days. I kept hitting the wreckage with sticks and rods just to attract their attention," she told the private Somoy TV from her hospital bed as doctors and nurses milled about, giving her saline and checking her condition.
"No one heard me. It was so bad for me. I never dreamed I'd see the daylight again," she said.
"There was some dried food around me. I ate the dried food for 15 days. The last two days I had nothing but water. I used to drink only a limited quantity of water to save it. I had some bottles of water around me," she said.
Once Reshma finally got their attention, the crews ordered the cranes and bulldozers to immediately stop work and used handsaws and welding and drilling equipment to cut through the iron rod and debris still trapping her. They gave her water, oxygen and saline as they worked to free her.
When Reshma was freed after 40 minutes, the crowd erupted in wild cheers. She was rushed to a military hospital in an ambulance, but her rescuers said she was in shockingly good condition, despite her ordeal.
Abdur Razzak, a warrant officer with the military's engineering department who first spotted her in the wreckage, said she could even walk.
"She was fine, no injuries. She was just trapped. The space was wide," said Lt. Col. Moyeen, an army official at the scene.
Reshma told her rescuers there were no more survivors in her area. Workers began tearing through the nearby rubble anyway, hoping to find another person alive.
"Reshma told me there were three others with her. They died. She did not see anybody else alive there," said Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy, the head of the local military units. "We will continue our search until a survivor or a dead body is there.”
The woman survived for more than two weeks in temperatures that touched the mid 90s (mid 30s Celsius). She scrounged for whatever food she could find, Suhrawardy said.
Then, when the workers with bulldozers and cranes got close to the area where she was trapped, she took a steel pipe and began banging it to attract attention, Razzak said. The workers ran into the dark rubble, eventually getting flashlights, to free her, he said.
Reshma's mother and her sister, Asma, rushed to the hospital to meet her.
Hundreds of people who had been engaged in the grim job of removing decomposing bodies from the site raised their hands together in prayer for her survival.
"Allah, you are the greatest, you can do anything. Please allow us all to rescue the survivor just found," said a man on a loudspeaker leading the supplicants. "We seek apology for our sins. Please pardon us, pardon the person found alive.”
Workers at the site had been clearing the rubble since the collapse April 24. More than 2,500 people were rescued in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. However, no survivors had been found in the wreckage since April 28, when Shahin Akter was found amid the wreckage. As workers tried to free her, a fire broke out and she died of smoke inhalation.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, called Reshma in the hospital, and the rescued woman began crying on the phone, Suhrawardy said. She told Hasina: "I am fine, please pray for me," he said.
Hasina, whose government has come under criticism for its lax oversight over the powerful garment industry, was racing to the hospital by helicopter to meet her, and congratulated the rescuers, officials said.
"This is an unbelievable feat," Hasina was quoted as saying by her assistant, Mahbubul Haque Shakil.
The death toll from the disaster soared past 1,000 Friday, with officials confirming that 1,038 bodies had been recovered from the rubble of the fallen building, which had housed five garment factories employing thousands of workers.
The disaster has raised alarm about the often deadly working conditions in Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry, which provides clothing for major retailers around the globe.
Brig. Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, an army official overseeing the recovery work said the bodies being recovered were badly decomposed and identification was difficult.
"We are working carefully," he said. "If we get any ID card or mobile phone with them, we can still identify them. Our sincere effort is to at least hand over the bodies to the families.”
Brig. Gen. Azmal Kabir, a top official of the military's engineering section, said more than half of the estimated 7,000 tons of debris have been removed from the site but he did not know when the work would be finished.