DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/26 December) – The chief of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) in Region 11apologized to the families of workers of a business process outsourcing firm who were trapped in a fire that hit NCCC Mall in Davao City on Saturday, saying the firefighters did all they could to rescue them but could only do so much.
Speaking after a mass outside NCCC Mall on Monday, Senior Supt. Wilberto Rico Neil A. Kwan Tiu, BFP-11 director said that on the first day of the fire they tried to reach the BPO facility but failed due to thick fumes with temperatures between 500 and 700 degrees Celsius, hot enough to melt their protective gear.
Davao City Archbishop Romulo Valles officiated the mass.
“We tried to make holes for us to be able to ventilate and have this overheated gasses escape, so our fighters can go inside,” he said.
Workmates and family members wept as Kwan Tiu announced that the responders saw the charred bodies of the 36 remaining missing victims upon reaching the lobby of Survey Sampling International (SSI), the victims’ employer, at around 11am on Monday. SSI occupied the entire 4th floor of the mall.
The fire broke out on at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, declared under control at 8 a.m. Sunday and put out at 5:15 p.m. of the same day.
A total of 31 fire trucks, including those coming from neighboring areas, were deployed to put out the fire, Kwan Tiu said.
“It’s very unfortunate that every time we attempted to go inside, we encountered so much heat, we encountered very thick smoke, more than what the people could see escaping from the roof,” he said.
He added there was no letup in the rescue operation by responders who were deployed earlier to assist the families affected by the flood in several parts of the city due to Typhoon Vinta.
He said some relatives of the fire victims claimed they were able to exchange text messages with their loved ones until afternoon of Saturday.
The official said there was a plan to demolish the already weakened structure Sunday evening.
But he said it was shelved after he insisted re-inspecting the facility the following day, as only one body was found at around 8 a.m. on Sunday, inside the comfort room near the elevator that he said was also the area that the firefighters “could possibly reach.”
City Mayor Sara Duterte vowed to assist the families of the fire victims and file charges against the mall management if results of the investigation show it committed lapses.
She said she will meet with mall owners and SSI officials to discuss the assistance they will provide to the families.
“Mangayo ko sa iyong patience (I’d like to ask for your patience). I would like to advise you to be calm, allow authorities to do their job, para mahanay og matarong nato. Kinahanglan buhaton nila tanan sistema para mapaspas nato og mareunite mo sa inyong mga paryente (so that everything can be settled. They need to do the system so that you can be reunited with your relatives),” she said.
The BPO Industry Employees’ Network (BIEN), an organization of BPO workers, has called for an independent investigation on the fire incident.
In a statement on Sunday, the group said the the number of workers trapped in the building “raises much suspicion to the BPO company’s compliance with occupational safety standards” like early warning system, prompt evacuation, and adequate and accessible emergency exits.
At around 3a.m. on Sunday, Christmas eve, President Rodrigo R. Duterte told the waiting families at the nearby Aposento restobar along MacArthur Highway here, that there were zero chances of survival for the 37 trapped workers as no one could survive the intense heat and smoke.
The BIEN, citing social media sources, claimed that “the building had locked out fire exits, no fire drills and had building made of sub-standard materials.”
The group demanded justice for the victims and penalizing accountable parties to avoid future deaths in workplace.
It said the incident must compel government to look into the compliance of all BPO firms with occupational health and safety standards.
The group added the fire incident shows the dangers that employees face with in the work place. It recalled the Kentex fire in Valenzuela in 2015 and HTI fire earlier this year in Cavite.
In a statement, Gary S. Laben, CEO of Research Now SSI, said the firm offered its condolences and prayers to the fire victims and vowed to support funeral arrangements.
“Words cannot express how saddened we are. We are grateful for the courageous response of the first responders and others who rushed to the scene,” he said.
He said they will create a fund for contributions to provide further assistance to the families.
The company, which hires 500 workers for its Davao operation, has arranged counseling for the workers, he said. (Antonio L. Colina IV/MindaNews)