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The Philippines

Philippines launches criminal probe into fire at shopping centre that left 37 people dead

Deadly blazes occur regularly in the Philippines, particularly in slum areas where there are virtually no fire safety standards

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 December, 2017, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 December, 2017, 12:48pm

Philippine authorities ordered a criminal investigation on Monday into a shopping centre fire that authorities said likely killed 37 people, including call centre staff from an American firm.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre announced the inquiry as firefighters prepared to enter what remained of the NCCC mall in the southern city of Davao where they hope to retrieve those who perished in Saturday’s blaze.

The fire compounded the Christmas misery in the south of the mainly Catholic nation where tens of thousands were also displaced by floods and landslides from a storm that also killed more than 200 others on Friday.

“The loss of lives and the resulting damage … underscore the need to determine if someone is at fault and should be held criminally liable,” Aguirre said in a statement. “By punishing those responsible, we can set an example to others so that, hopefully, there will be no repetition of those tragedies.”

Deadly blazes occur regularly in the Philippines, particularly in slum areas where there are virtually no fire safety standards.

The loss of lives and the resulting damage … underscore the need to determine if someone is at fault
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre

Relatives of the missing said many of those still unaccounted for were staff from a call centre for the US-based market research company SSI that occupied the building’s top floor.

Local authorities on Sunday said no one trapped in the fire would have survived but firefighters have only managed to retrieve one unidentified body so far.

The Davao fire marshal had on Sunday described the shopping centre as “an enclosed space with no ventilation”, though the authorities said they had yet to determine the cause of the blaze.

The building’s administrators on Sunday denied allegations from survivors that there were inadequate emergency fire exits and that some of them were locked.

“There is no truth to that allegation. In fact as per accounts of those who got out, they were able get out through the fire exit,” Thea Padua, the mall’s public relations officer, said by text message.

Some relatives of those missing criticised rescuers for what they felt was the slow pace of recovery efforts.

“They seem so relaxed,” said Jolita Basalan, weeping as she waited for news of her missing 29-year-old son Jonas who worked at the call centre. “They are not pained because they don’t have a child there. They told us to come here but no one is moving.”

But authorities earlier said firefighters needed to inspect the structural integrity of the burnt-out building before venturing inside its gutted remains.

Corruption and exploitation mean supposedly strict fire standards are often not enforced in the Philippines.

In 2015, a fire tore through a footwear factory in Manila, killing 72. Survivors of that blaze blamed barred windows and other sweatshop conditions for trapping people inside the factory.

In the deadliest fire in the Philippines in recent times, 162 people were killed in a huge blaze that gutted a Manila disco in 1996.

With low wages but strong English language skills, the Asian nation is a popular destination for international companies to set up customer call centres in its big cities including Davao, more than 900km south of Manila.