Posted on behalf of Noor Afsa Zaman Ali
My colleague Dr. Sujata and I responded to an invitation to volunteer at the Savar site with a team of seven volunteers on the 25th of April, a day after the collapse of Rana Plaza. Getting to the site itself was an extremely exhausting experience, and we faced blockades, harassment and difficulty every step of the way. Due to road blocks, we had to walk from Hemayetpur to ground zero.
Once there, the reality we faced was far worse than what we expected. Furthermore, we found ourselves wholly unprepared for the situation, being exposed to a disaster of this magnitude for the first time.
We saw hundreds of people flocking at the site in an attempt to help but effectively adding to the confusion instead. For the first few minutes, you could say we were part of the mess too as we stood among the crowd figuring where to start. We saw hundreds of people pouncing on the rubble and emerging as a clumsy line with broken shards of glass and brick to clear the debris. Next to me, I heard a man shouting desperately into his cell phone to his brother who had been trapped inside the building. We went about asking the volunteers if they needed any doctors for on-site medical attention, but they seemed just as lost as we were…
Just as my colleague Dr. Sujata and I started to climb down the roof of the building, someone roared out from behind for a doctor. They just had found access to another victim it seemed. We rushed back but as soon as they saw us, “Madam, we need MALE doctors,” they said.
At first I didn’t quite get him…but it registered within seconds. They were concerned about putting our lives at risk, especially since we were “women”. Whatever remained of the structure was still flimsy and the risk of an aftershock due to rescue activity could have put our lives in danger. Nevertheless we pleaded our way in, but under the supervision of a firefighter of course.
Once inside, we were in for another surprise – access to the victim was extremely dangerous. Each step we took seemed like a death trap. Parts of the building collapsing around us as we inched forwards. The rescuers had created a hole which only allowed one person to fit through and with much difficulty too – if I may add. Needless to say, it was a trap within a trap…
We asked the rescuers about who to save and what to do. They showed us a woman who was trapped around her gluteal region and urgently needed an amputation to be freed. Sadly, we only came prepared with some first aid supplies and needed orthopedic provisions. Naturally, we were angry with the rescue management. Someone in charge should have provided us with instruments necessary to perform amputations on-site. I doubt there was someone in charge there at all. I only remember a sea of nervous volunteers with no sense of direction and organization. We had to move on.
Back on the roof of the building we were being called from each and every direction. Two doctors and hundreds of trapped victims are a gross mismatch. In retrospect, I can see now why there were only two of us – others were unwilling to risk climbing on top of a heap of flimsy rubble. We were too caught up in the moment to care for our own safety I guess! We blindly followed our accompanying firefighter – placing our feet wherever directed in the trickiest crevices and nooks. The firefighter kept briefing us about the trapped people they had discovered up to date.
At a cleft there was no more ground for us to stay on top of, and whatever there was started to crumble away. At one point I lost my footing and thankfully someone pulled me from behind just in time. I could see a drop height of about 20 feet funneling into a pitch.
I looked over my right shoulder and saw the face of a trapped body inches away from me – hanging by neck, his chest pressed against the back wall with a large piece of rock shard. I reflexively gasped, stepped back and turned my head to find five other bodies, all intricately trapped in the rubble in various positions… An overturned woman half of whose body had been smashed, a man dangling by his arm… Just in that tiny space, I must have seen 5 different stories of the building flattened into one. There were six bodies trapped and dead and no way to get access to them. There was the obvious risk of rubble collapsing on any rescuer’s head if he attempted to pull a body out. The whole situation was just impossible!
We explored our options at a few other locations. Most of the bodies were dead and little could be done for the ones that were still alive due to their dire circumstances and lack of proper equipment on our hands. In my eagerness to check the victims I lost my footing again and slipped – this time across a whole story and fell on my left hip. Call me clumsy but I was simply engorged with the futility of the disaster. Back to work as soon as I was up.
We finally decided that it made more sense to administer first aid to rescue workers who were constantly showing up with bruises and lacerations which we could manage. Administering some basic first aid for the workers, we decided to head out to the Emergency Room of the nearest hospital (Enam Medical) where our services would be most useful. The hospital OTs were performing amputations round the clock and all their orthopedic resources were being used. No wonder why people couldn’t provide us with amputation instruments on-site we realized – the hospitals simply could not hand them out because they needed them. Meanwhile, as the clock ticked, the limbs of the victims who still didn’t reach the hospital would necrose. The gravity of the situation at both places made me woozy with despair!
A truly unnerving experience for me. The people who died only died for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. They did not deserve this fate. They deserved to live as much as we do. After arriving home I realized that I did not even once care to thank my firefighter escort who had guarded me and rescued me from my own accidents twice. I didn’t even remember his face anymore. It just made me feel more sorry.
Noor Afsa Zaman Ali
Noor just recently completed her internship training from Kumudini Medical College and Hospital and plans to go to USA to continue medical education and practice. She is a member of several youth and voluntary platforms and a long-time patron of SHEPRO. Noor was one of the volunteer doctors with SHEPRO at Savar during the Rana Plaza disaster.