Old Maasim town hall burns

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/03 August) — A huge fire razed to the ground early Tuesday the old municipal building of Maasim in Sarangani province, destroying several major government offices in the area.

Inset Map Courtesy of WikipediaInsp. Raffy Valila, acting Maasim police chief, said the fire broke out at around 3:50 am at the rear portion of the building that housed the Commission on Elections (Comelec) municipal office and the offices of the municipal treasurer, assessor, budget and human resources and development.

He said the blaze engulfed the predominantly wooden structure several minutes after it was first monitored by the municipal government’s security personnel who were then stationed at a nearby building.

Valila said the fire spread even faster when a motorcycle parked inside the building, several personal computers and appliances caught fire and triggered some explosions.

“It spread quite faster than usual so we did not have enough time to save any of the valuables from some of the offices inside,” the police official said.

Since the town has no fire truck, Valila said they immediately issued a fire call to the city fire station here and the neighboring municipalities.

Senior Insp. Renel Belonio, General Santos City fire marshal, said they immediately rushed to the area after receiving a fire call at 4:15am.

He said several other fire trucks from Kiamba and Maitum towns in Sarangani arrived at past 5am.

“But it was too late by then. The building was almost gutted down by the time we arrived at the scene,” Belonio told reporters.

He cited that they also failed to immediately refill their fire trucks due to the absence of fire hydrants and water sources within the municipal hall complex.

Belonio said the complex has two overhead water tanks but they have no available outlets since they were designed for the water consumption of the municipal government offices and not for firefighting.

As of Tuesday noon, the fire marshal said they were still trying to determine the real cause of the incident, which left an initial estimated damage of P20 million.

Belonio said they were investigating at least two employees of the Comelec who reportedly worked over time and were still inside the municipal election office when the fire started.

He said the two Comelec employees were able to leave the building unscathed while the structure was already burning.

“We could not yet conclude as to what really caused the fire but our investigation is still ongoing and we’re looking at all possible angles,” Belonio said.

The fire marshal admitted that among the initial angles that came up was the possible connection of the incident to a pending election protest filed by defeated mayoral bet Arturo Lawa against proclaimed Maasim Mayor Jose Zamorro.

The Maasim Municipal Board of Canvassers (MBOC) earlier proclaimed independent candidate Zamorro as the winning mayor of Maasim after receiving 5,321 votes, edging his closest rival, former provincial board member Lawa, who got 5,306 votes.

But Lawa, who ran under the then ruling coalition Sarangani Reconciliation and Reformation Organization-Lakas-Kampi-CMD (Sarro-Lakas), immediately sought the nullification of Zamorro’s proclamation after it turned out that the MBOC failed to count the actual votes cast in clustered precinct 21 due to a transmission error.

The Comelec central office ordered late last month the reconvening of the MBOC to rectify the errors during the previous canvassing but it did not push through due to the absence of Maasim election officer Teresita Lucero.

Zamorro, who rushed to the fire scene early this morning, refused to speculate on the possible cause of the fire saying he will just leave the matter to investigators of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP).

“We’ll just wait for their (BFP) findings. Right now, our main concern is the immediate relocation of the damaged offices and the replacement of the destroyed equipment,” he said.

For his part, Sarangani Gov. Miguel Rene Dominguez said he ordered the Sarangani Provincial Police Office to secure the fire scene pending the investigation of the BFP and the local police.

“We need to secure the site first and not allow anybody to enter the area except our investigators,” he said in a radio interview.

Dominguez said he initially asked the BFP and the Sarangani police to dig deeper into the incident and determine whether it happened in “bad faith.”

“We’re urging our authorities to prioritize this matter because among those destroyed were vital documents related to the last elections as well as land registration records of the municipal government,” he added. (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews)