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The Philippines

Probe into deadly fire at southern Philippines shopping centre focuses on possible safety lapses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 5:10pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 10:25pm

A government investigator probing the blaze that led to the deaths of 37 people at a southern Philippines shopping centre said there are signs of fire safety lapses that may have contributed to the tragedy.

The December 23 blaze in Davao City broke out at a furniture and fabric store on the third floor of a shopping centre, the New City Commercial Centre (NCCC), and then engulfed the offices of US firm Research Now SSI on the fourth floor in choking smoke.

The only person among the 38 killed in the fire who did not work at the firm was a security officer. More than 100 SSI employees who were on duty that day managed to escape.

Initial evidence from an ongoing investigation by Philippine government agencies indicates sprinkler systems on the third and fourth floors were not working as their valves were closed, said Senior Superintendent Jerry Candido, who is director of logistics at the Philippines’ Bureau of Fire Protection and one of the lead investigators into the fire.

Candido said Research Now SSI employees may have been unaware of the fire beneath them for some time because their office had its own alarm that was not connected to the system used by the shopping centre.

“That explains why people inside the SSI were not aware that fire is happening just below their floor,” he said.

His comments are the most extensive yet made publicly on the progress of the investigation.

In a statement issued in the US on Friday, Research Now SSI said it is working with the authorities involved in the probe into the fire and is “confident that an impartial investigation will reveal that it has complied with all the security and safety requirements required by law”.

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“We are focused on helping our employees and the victims’ families, and cooperating with the government agencies, over the coming weeks and months,” said the firm’s CEO Gary Laben.

Darry Gallego, assistant vice-president of corporate services at NCCC, said the shopping centre could not comment on an ongoing investigation, but stressed that safety requirements had been met, including having a sprinkler system.

“The mall had passed through all the needed safety examinations and was certified by the authorities as being safe to operate and serve the public,” Gallego said.

Candido cautioned that the investigation is still some way from being completed and it has yet to reach firm conclusions, particularly on the issue of liability.

SSI, which rented the offices from NCCC, needed to have its own operating sprinkler system to get its annual fire safety inspection certificate, which was in turn required for its yearly business permit renewal, Candido said.

Investigators will look into whether there were any questions that came up when NCCC and SSI were granted these certificates this year and in previous years, he said.

NCCC last got the certificate in April 2017 and SSI in September 2017, according to Honee Fritz Alagano, Davao City fire marshal and spokeswoman for the Bureau of Fire Protection in the city. That was after passing the Davao City Bureau of Fire Protection’s annual inspections, she said.

Candido said it was the responsibility of both building owners and tenants to make sure that alarm and sprinkler systems were installed and operating. Under the country’s fire code, if there were two alarm systems they should be integrated so the shopping centre system would have triggered SSI’s, and vice versa.

Candido said investigators are also looking at whether the ceiling material in the call centre was flammable but have not drawn any conclusions yet.

He also said the investigation was looking at some major structural questions concerning the SSI offices and how they related to the rest of the mall – issues that may not have put anyone in breach of regulations.

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For example, while SSI’s fire exits would have passed inspection, only one of them had stairs leading directly outside the building. The others, he said, headed back into the mall. These areas quickly filled up with smoke making them useless as a means to escape, he said.

Indeed, the position of the offices in the mall may have put them at high risk as the smoke from a fire elsewhere in the building would be funnelled towards the offices, Candido said.

“When fire occurred in any part of the mall, SSI will be fully engulfed. That explains why the exits were not used because they were cut off by the smoke,” he said.

Candido separately told reporters that initial findings indicated the fire was caused by an electrical problem in the ceiling at the furniture and fabric store, exacerbated by the failure of the sprinkler system on that same floor.

He also said the Research Now SSI records showed that the firm’s latest fire drill was poorly attended. He did not say when the exercise took place. “Out of hundreds of personnel, less than 10 participated,” he said, adding that three of those died in the blaze.