Death toll reaches 72
The Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) on Thursday removed the fire chief of Valenzuela City (Metro Manila) as authorities started investigating what caused the fire that gutted a factory where at least 72 have been killed.
The authorities believe this would be close to the final death toll, as the figure matched the number of people missing.
Supt. Mel Jose Lagan, along with Senior Insp. Ed-groover Oculam, who heads the local fire station’s section in charge of ensuring compliance with the country’s Fire Code, were “administratively relieved” on Thursday afternoon, a BFP official said.
The order came a few hours after Lagan faced reporters in a news conference, which also had Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian and the acting Philippine National Police chief, Deputy Director Leonardo Espina, in attendance.
Firefighters and police forensic teams pulled dozens of corpses out of the ruins of the two-story building of Kentex Manufacturing Inc. in Barangay Ugong also on Thursday, a day after the blaze trapped the terrified workers inside the building that apparently had few exits and saw no fire safety training.
“Many of those retrieved were reduced to skulls and bones,” Espina said.
“Someone will definitely be charged because of the deaths. It doesn’t matter if it’s an accident, people died. Right now, we are investigating to clearly define what happened. For sure, someone will be charged.”
During the late morning news conference, Lagan insisted that local fire officials were not negligent of their duties.
“We were not remiss of our duties. The problem here are the employers whether they have complied with the rules or whether the number of people inside the building was more than what was required,” he said in Filipino.
Lagan said arson investigators are trying to determine why the workers got trapped.
“There were sufficient exits and the stairway was wide enough. We want to look into this,” he added.
Survivors blamed barred windows for the disaster and claimed enduring sweatshop conditions in the ill-fated factory.
Most of the workers and employees of the factory were killed after they were engulfed by fire that took about seven hours to extinguish.
Mayor Gatchalian on Wednesday said the fire could have been ignited by sparks from a welding job being undertaken on one of the main doors on the ground floor.
Nearly all of those killed were trapped on the second floor of the two-story building, unable to break steel bars over the windows, according to survivors and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd.
“They were screaming for help, holding on to the bars,” factory worker Randy Paghubosan, one of the few on the ground floor who escaped, said.
“When we could no longer see their hands, we knew they had died… they died because they were trapped on the second floor.”
Roxas promised justice for the victims as he expressed anger at the lack of fire exits and the apparent cause of the blaze — welding that was being carried out near flammable chemicals.
“Why was welding work allowed near all those chemicals? Why were the second floor windows enclosed in steel bars? Why were 69 of the 72 on the second floor,” Roxas told reporters after meeting with victims’ relatives.
The factory, among a long row of similar businesses in the rundown city of Valenzuela on the northern edge of Metro Manila, made cheap slippers and sandals for the local market.
The factory workers toiled for well below minimum wage while surrounded by foul-smelling chemicals and had no fire safety training, according to survivors, relatives and the nation’s biggest union.
“The families can’t help but be angry about what happened. We will never forget this,” said Rodrigo Nabor, whose two sisters were inside the factory and presumed dead.
Nabor was among relatives of factory workers waiting for body bags at the village hall of Barangay Maysan that had been converted into a makeshift morgue.
He said his sisters, Bernardita Logronio, 32, and Jennylyn Nabor, 26, often complained of foul-smelling chemicals in their workplace.
“They said they keep an electric fan on to drive some of the smell away,” Nabor added.
He said their pay depended on how many flip-flops they finished, which could be as little as 300 pesos ($6.70) a day. Nabor’s sisters each had a young child.
The minimum wage in Manila is 481 pesos a day.
One survivor, 23-year-old Lisandro Mendoza, said he escaped by running out through the back door, but that the company had not conducted any fire safety education or drills during his five months working there.
“We were running not knowing exactly where to go… if people had known what to do, it would have been different,” he added.
“I was having lunch when I saw smoke coming from the front, then I just ran and kept running.”
Other survivors also told Agence France-Presse that the small company that ran the factory had not carried out any fire safety drills in years.
Mendoza said he worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, for 3,500 pesos ($79), mixing chemicals.
“It’s a very foul smell. I can still smell it even if I have one face mask on top of the another,” he added.
Another survivor, Janet Victoriano, also described lax fire safety standards.
“I had never been involved in a fire drill ever,” Victoriano, who had worked at the factory for five years, also told radio station dzMM.
She said she was able to escape because she was near the front door when the blaze started.
Sarah Jane Hao, 23 was just two weeks on the job when she decided not to show up for work on Wednesday after rashes appeared on her body.
“The allergy became visible in my neck, shoulders and legs, so I skipped work that day,” she also told The Manila Times.
“The allergy started Tuesday afternoon while I was working. It became worse the next day. I don’t know what caused it,” Hao said.
She was among those who crowded the barangay hall awaiting word about the fate of her
friend and co-worker Lahlee Aquino, 18, who was hired three days before the fire struck.
“I convinced her to join me,” Hao said, adding that Aquino’s parents have left Zambales and was en route to Valenzuela City.
When asked who recruited her as factory worker, she pointed at a certain Violeta Yanido who also works at Kentex.
Another victim, Jorge Pinaloga, 30, a father of a one-month-old girl, was barely a month at the factory.
“He left the house about 5:45 a.m. since his duty is from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. I was still sleeping when he left,” Jorge’s live-in partner, Mary Grace Tabios, 27, said.
She added that the last time they spoke to each other was Tuesday night and they were discussing financial matters.
Another fatality, Elizabeth Baniko, 45, has been with Kentex since it opened 24 years ago.
“She spent half of her life with the company. She was very patient in going to work for six days every week,” a relative of Baniko, who asked not to be named, said.
The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, the largest labor federation in the country, said its preliminary investigation revealed extremely dangerous conditions for the factory workers.
“We found out that the building had no fire exits… they had no safety officers who could handle chemicals… so there were many health and safety violations,” union spokesman Alan Tanjusay said.
When Roxas met with relatives of the victims near the factory site, they told him the employer did not remit social security and health insurance contributions.
Others said their dead relatives were hired through a middleman, which reduced their already small pay.
“Why were these payments not being remitted? Why were some of them hired through a middleman? The Labor department will investigate this,” Roxas said.
Malacañang said it is saddened by the huge loss of lives as it vowed to continue strict inspections of manufacturing companies to protect workers.
“We are saddened by the fire that gutted a factory in Valenzuela City yesterday that resulted in the death of many workers,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma, Jr. said in a statement issued on Thursday.
Coloma added that they had been informed by Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz that, based on Labor Department records, Kentex was assessed to have been compliant with occupational safety requirements as of September 2014.
“The DOLE [Department of Labor and Employment] is coordinating with the Bureau of Fire Protection in ascertaining if there had been violations of safety regulations, so that proper accountability may be established,” he said.
According to DOLE, Kentex is a unionized company, with an existing safety committee, and its workers are entitled to government mandated social security and workmen’s compensation benefits.
Moreover, in compliance with President Aquino’s directives, the DOLE has intensified its campaign on compliance with labor law standards, including the hiring of additional labor inspectors, Coloma said.
As a result, a total of 76,880 companies were inspected in 2014, compared to the average of 23,400 companies inspected during the previous decade, he reported.
Of those inspected, a total of 8,974 companies were found to have either closed or could not be located in the recorded address, while 67,906 underwent occupational health and safety (OSH) investigation.
Of those companies actually inspected, 44,041 companies were found to be compliant and 23,865 were required to take corrective action; 7,528 companies have since complied, bringing the number of compliant companies to 51,569 or 76 percent of all those inspected, Coloma said.
“The government is firmly determined to intensify inspection of factories to ensure strict compliance with occupational safety and health standards and prevent a repetition of the Kentex fire and similar disasters that pose grave danger to the safety and lives of Filipino workers,” he added.
With FERNAN MARASIGAN, JOEL M. SY EGCO, WILLIAM B. DEPASUPIL, NEIL A. ALCOBER, JING VILLAMENTE, AFP and PNA