The Ship-Breakers

The men of Bangladesh risk their lives to tear apart cargo carriers and tankers.

Photograph by Mike Hettwer

At low tide ship-breakers haul a 10,000-pound cable to a beached ship to winch pieces ashore as they dismantle it.

Locator

Satellite image by DigitalGlobe

A MARITIME GRAVEYARD
A satellite image shows a stretch of the Bangladeshi coast just north of Chittagong, where ships from around the world are beached and dismantled. Eight miles of mangroves have been cleared for the shipbreaking yards, which are often little more than a sliver of beach wide enough for a single large ship. The coast now holds 80 active yards, with new ones added each year.

Photograph by Mike Hettwer

These ship-breakers claim to be 14, the minimum legal age to work in the yards. Managers favor young workers because they are cheap and know less about the dangers, and their small bodies enable them to access a ship’s tightest corners.

Photograph by Mike Hettwer

Steel from ship hulls is harvested in plates. Each can weigh a thousand pounds or more. Using brute strength and improvised rollers, teams of carriers move the plates to trucks, which transport them to mills where they are converted into steel rods for construction.

Photograph by Mike Hettwer

Carriers spend their days slathered in mud contaminated with heavy metals and toxic paint particles that leach from the ships into
the tidal flats.

Photograph by Mike Hettwer

Oblivious to the risk of lung cancer, workers fend off the nighttime chill by burning a pipe gasket likely containing asbestos.

Photograph by Mike Hettwer

“Cuttermen” armed with acetylene torches and trailed by their assistants first strip a ship of its fittings and then methodically carve through the layers of decks. Demolition takes three to six months, depending on the ship’s size.

Photograph by Mike Hettwer

After workers spent several days cutting through the decks of the Leona I, a large section suddenly crashes, sending shards of steel flying toward the yard managers. Built in Split, Croatia, the cargo vessel was at sea for 30 years, about the average ship’s life span.

Photograph by Mike Hettwer

Some 300 people in Dhunot, a village in the Himalayan foothills, attend the funeral of Rana Babu, a 22-year-old ship-breaker who was killed when a torch sparked a gas pocket and set off an explosion. “He was just a boy,” said one mourner. “Why does this keep happening?”