PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino 3rd virtually cleared fire bureau officials of culpability in the May 13 footwear factory fire that killed 72 people and trained his guns on Valenzuela City (Metro Manila) officials for allowing the business to operate despite having failed fire safety inspection.
Investigation showed that the Kentex Manufacturing factory fire was caused by sparks from a welding job near the main door that ignited flammable chemicals that were stored in the area.
Of the 72 fatalities, three died of asphyxia or smoke inhalation, while 69 people sustained fourth-degree burns.
The President said local officials of Valenzuela City may be charged with reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide and falsification of documents because of the tragedy.
He mentioned that all 23 factories in Valenzuela City that were inspected by the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) failed to comply with fire safety requirements. One even had to be immediately shut down.
Valenzuela City is currently headed by Mayor Rex Gatchalian, who is aligned with the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA).
The mayor’s brother, now Valenzuela City Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian, was the spokesman for the UNA senatorial slate in the 2013 elections.
“There were people in the Valenzuela City government who gave them a permit and the certificate of occupancy. That is an established fact,” the President said in a news conference on Monday.
“There are people who died because of their lax enforcement of existing rules and they have to answer for that,” he added.
The President said Valenzuela City Hall should not have issued a business permit to Kentex Manufacturing Corp. without the required fire safety inspection certificate (FSIC).
“City Hall knows that a Fire Safety Inspection Certificate is a requirement, but they still gave the factory a business permit and certificate of occupancy sans the FSIC,” he added in Filipino.
Aquino, quoting findings of an inter-agency investigation team that looked into the incident, said it was highly questionable that Kentex continued to operate despite having no FSIC in the past two decades, except for 2012.
The President revealed that Kentex violated regulations spelled out by Republic Act 9514 or the Revised Fire Code of the Philippines, including lack of an automatic fire sprinkler system and lack of a protected fire exit.
“According to the Fire Code, they should secure a permit to operate. From 1996, they have not complied with the requirements of the Fire Code. This was a tragedy waiting to happen,” he said.
Aquino added that determining lapses of the factory owner in complying with fire safety regulations proves that the BFP did its job.
“According to records that were shown to us, the reason why they didn’t have a Fire Safety Inspection Certification is [that]the BFP did [its]job,” he said, also in Filipino.
The President noted that the fire bureau notified the factory owner as well as City Hall of the Fire Code violations they found when they inspected the factory.
According to him, an FSIC is proof that an establishment complies with fire safety standards as spelled out by the Fire Code.
“A business permit applicant needs to present an FSIC. If you do not present one, you can’t be given a business permit. That serves as a sort of guarantee that an establishment should comply with the law to safeguard the welfare of the workers,” the President said, again in Filipino.
No negative findings
Calling a news conference later in the afternoon, Mayor Gatchalian said the BFP did not tell City Hall to revoke Kentex’s business permit.
“They never reported any negative findings,” he added.
Gatchalian said the city government is following three circulars from the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the BFP, which he claims mandate local government units to streamline release of business permits.
“The local government unit of Valenzuela will not act without any legal basis or legal imprimatur for us to move. And we treat memo circulars coming from national agencies, more so, departments, with utmost importance and urgency,” he added.
Gatchalian said the set of the circulars mandates the BFP to inspect establishments after a local government unit (LGU) issues a provisional business permit.
If fire safety inspectors find any violations, they should report them back to the LGU so that the business permit can be revoked.
Gatchalian said as of February, Valenzuela has 15,775 establishments but the BFP only inspected 3,527 of these and only 16 percent were issued certificates.
“Imagine [in Valenzuela where there are 15,000 business establishments, only 2,667 were given]fire safety certificates, what will we do? Will we just wait for this FSIC to be released? What will happen to our economy? What will happen to the businesses? What will happen to the local economy and the local employees?” the mayor asked.
Gatchalian took the President’s remarks to mean that the DILG should investigate the matter.
“I think if we look at the context, it is tasking the DILG to investigate before the charges will be filed. But on the part of the LGU, we are transparent since Day One,” he said.