DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 01 January) — “Mang, nay sunog dire. Mang, nay sunog dire. Mang, kung ano matabo, mang, palangga ko kamo (Ma, there’s a fire here. Ma, there’s a fire here. Ma, no matter what happens, Ma, I love you).”
Karen Angelie Mae Muyco said these were the last words of her sister Rhenzi (nickname: Jade), breadwinner of the family, when she called their mother on Saturday morning, December 23, the day the four-story NCCC Mall Davao caught fire.
Karen wished she could have responded, “I love you, too,” but she was overtaken by panic upon hearing her sister cry and several others screaming on the other end of the line.
The 25-year old Rhenzi had been working as a call center agent at the Survey Sampling International (SSI) on the fourth floor of the mall in the last 20 months. She was asked to report early Saturday and she rushed to work even if it was her day off.
As the breadwinner, Rhenzi, who was considered among the best performing agents at the SSI, did not mind working on her day off for the extra pay.
Her family had planned to celebrate the birthday of their mother, Carolina, the following day, December 24.
Except for Michelle Patani, the eldest of six siblings who is now based in Koronadal as a guidance counsellor at the Notre Dame of Marbel University, the Muyco family was complete as their father came to the city from their hometown in South Cotabato to join the celebration.
Rhenzi wanted to cook the “spaghetti package” given by a friend in the office and get her mom the usual birthday cake.
Karen recalls how their father tirelessly waited outside the mall from the time they received that call from Rhenzi but the fire and the thick black smoke only grew bigger as the minutes turned to hours.
There was no Rhenzi in sight.
At around 3 a.m. on Sunday, families burst into tears as President Rodrigo Duterte announced at the Aposento restobar that there was “zero chance” of survival for the trapped victims under such condition.
Day of Grief
What was supposed to be a day of celebration on Sunday, December 24, turned out to be a day of grief and disbelief as authorities began the first day of the search and retrieval operation for the bodies of the 38 missing, including Rhenzi’s, inside the burning mall.
In those harrowing hours of the search, Carolina could not sleep, wondering where her “inexpressive yet sweet and generous” Rhenzi was and wishing she was elsewhere alive.
The dreadful moment came when Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) 11 director Wilberto Rico Neil A. Kwan Tiu announced that the 36 bodies were recovered at the lobby of the call center on December 25, Christmas Day.
Kwan Tiu said the bodies were recovered just a few steps away from the stairwell, where a group of SSI survivors had come down moments earlier to escape the burning mall.
Karen said Rhenzi had so many dreams in her life, including returning to school by June 2018 and finishing a degree in Psychology at the Rizal Memorial Colleges (RMC) here.
“We could not believe that this would happen to her, not even her friends who would just like to think that she had just gone on vacation,” she said.
Karen said she wants justice for her sister.
Michelle added that they are awaiting results of the investigation conducted by the interagency task force comprising the Department of Interior and Local Government, Bureau of Fire Protection, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), Department of Justice (DOJ), and Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) 11.
“We will wait for the result of the investigation. As of now, we need to calm down. If it shows there’s lapses in the mall management, we need to fight,” she said.
Her sister’s remains were laid to rest on Sunday.
Mayor Sara Duterte assured the city government’s support for families of the victims.
She said the city government, NCCC Mall and SSI will give the families financial assistance.
The city government has vowed to shoulder the expenses for the wake and the burial of the victims; SSI will help match families for livelihood packages with the Department of Labor and Employment; and NCCC will include the children of those who died, in their scholarship program.
Mayor Duterte, an endorser of Choice Mart, a company under NCCC Supermarket, had earlier withdrawn the city government’s participation in the ongoing investigation after her “integrity and impartiality” was questioned.
In a statement on December 28, the mayor said her impartiality has been questioned and there have been suggestions that she should inhibit herself from the investigation of the NCCC mall fire because of an endorsement contract.
“For the record, I am not part of the investigation team. I have never presented myself to investigate the mall fire and under normal circumstances, a City Mayor does not sign fire investigation reports of the BFP. Also, I am not an endorser of the NCCC Mall, but I have a commitment with Choice Mart, which is another company of NCCC supermarket,” she said, adding “nobody can question how I did my work as Mayor in helping the family of the victims, the BFP, the NCCC, and SSI officials.”
In a statement released on December 30, NCCC spokesperson and public relations manager Thea Padua said the 660 workers displaced by fire will be absorbed in the other NCCC branches.
“As early as the first day of the tragedy, top management already decided that the affected workers would not be displaced and will instead be absorbed in our other operations,” said Padua. (Antonio L. Colina IV / MindaNews)