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Death toll from factory collapse in Bangladesh passes 1,100

Above: A seamstress was rescued from the rubble of a building in Bangladesh 17 days after it collapsed. NBC’s Ian Williams has more on how she was able to survive for so long trapped under the debris. 

SAVAR, Bangladesh – Police say the death toll from the collapse of a garment factory building in Bangladesh has soared past 1,100 as recovery operations continue.

Doctors say a seamstress who was rescued 17 days after the eight-story building collapsed is recovering in a hospital, but is exhausted, panicked and dehydrated.

Her discovery in the rubble Friday brought a boost to the rescue workers. By Saturday, they had resumed their grim task and the death toll reached 1,115 in the world’s worst garment industry disaster.

Watch: Seamstress recued from

“We will not leave the operation until the last dead body and living person is found,” said Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy, the head of the local military units in charge of rescue operations.

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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.

Gallery: Bangladesh garment factory fire

Unlike the collapse at the Rana Plaza building, which was blamed on shoddy construction and disregard for safety regulations, the fire at the Tung Hai Sweater factory appeared to have conformed to building codes. A top fire official said the deaths in Wednesday night’s fire – including a senior police officer, a Bangladeshi politician and a top clothing industry official – were caused by panic and bad luck.

“They are really unfortunate,” Mamun Mahmud, deputy director of the fire service, said Thursday.

The fire engulfed the lower floors of the 11-storey factory, which had closed for the day. The smouldering acrylic products produced immense amounts of smoke and poison gas and the victims suffocated as they ran down the stairs, Mahmud said.

The building appeared on first inspection to have been properly built, though fire inspectors would conduct further checks, he said. It had two stairwells in the front and an emergency exit in the back, he said. Those inside probably panicked when they saw smoke and ran into one of the front stairwells, he said. Had they used the emergency stairwell, they would have survived, he said.

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“Apparently they tried to flee the building through the stairwell in fear that the fire had engulfed the whole building,” he said.

They also would have likely survived the slow-spreading fire had they stayed on the upper floors, he said.

“We found the roof open, but we did not find there anybody after the fire broke out. We recovered all of them on the stairwell on the ninth floor,” he said.

The dead included the factory’s managing director, Mahbubur Rahman, who was also on the board of directors of the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Along with him was senior police official Z.A. Morshed and Sohel Mostafa Swapan, head of a local branch of the ruling party’s youth league.

Independent TV, a local station, reported that Rahman had plans to contest next year’s parliamentary elections as a candidate for the ruling party and had been meeting friends to discuss his future when the fire broke out.

It was not immediately clear what caused the fire, which began soon after the factory workers went home for the day and took three hours to bring under control. Mahmud speculated it might have originated in the factory’s ironing section. Officials originally said the building also housed several floors of apartments, but later said it was just a factory.

The Facebook page of the Tung Hai Group claimed it was a sprawling enterprise with a total of 7,000 employees at its two factories and the capacity to produce well over 6 million sweaters, shirts, pants and pyjamas every month. The group claimed it did business with major retailers in Europe and North America.

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The country’s powerful garment industry has been plagued by a series of disasters in recent months, including a November fire at the Tazreen factory that killed 112 and the building collapse.

READ MORE: Officials in Bangladesh say at least eight dead in fire at garment factory

More than two weeks after the building in the suburb of Savar collapsed, workers with cranes and other heavy equipment were still pulling apart the rubble and finding more bodies. On Friday, authorities said the death toll had risen to 1,021 and it was unclear how many more people remained missing. More than 2,500 people were rescued alive after the April 24 accident.

Maj. Ohiduzzaman, an army official who uses only one name, said 100 decomposing bodies have been kept at a makeshift morgue at a school and were to be sent to hospitals in Dhaka for DNA testing to identify them.

A total of 648 bodies have so far been handed over to the families, he said. Some of those who authorities have been unable to identify have been buried by the government.

Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus said in an article published in Bangladeshi newspapers Thursday that the tragedy was a “symbol of our failure as a nation.”

“The crack in Rana Plaza that caused the collapse of the building has only shown us that if we don’t face up to the cracks in our state systems, we as a nation will get lost in the debris of the collapse,” he said, urging the government and citizens to work together for reforms.

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He also urged global brands not to abandon the country, saying that the workers in the factories – which often subcontract from the well-known brands – should be seen as de facto employees of those companies.

The European Union’s delegation to Bangladesh urged the government Wednesday to “act immediately” to improve working conditions in the country’s garment industry.

Abdul Latif Siddiqui, head of special Cabinet committee to inspect garment factories that was formed days after the Rana Plaza collapse, said the government has closed 18 garment factories in recent days for failing to meet work and safety standards. He did not say whether the closures were temporary or permanent.

Officials say the owner of Rana Plaza illegally added three floors and allowed the garment factories to install heavy machines and generators, even though the structure was not designed to support such equipment.

The owner and eight other people, including the owners of the garment factories, have been detained.