IN PHOTOS: Inside the Caloocan City Police Station after the fire
MANILA, Philippines – At first glance, the building seemed fine.
Its facade was spotless: cement painted white, covered with shutter-type windows, and a belt of blue tiles tracing its middle to show the separation of its two floors. Glass doors would welcome visitors.
Once one goes inside, however, it's a different story.
A pitch-black ceiling looks like it will consume the interiors, while dried black droplets stain the walls.
The cop at the front desk casually asks how he can help, with a backdrop of soiled notices and a broken television.
Walk right from the lobby through a passage then turn left. If you came in before November 14, the day a fire hit, you would have seen a hall of offices marked accordingly – Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO), Investigation, Supplies, then at the end, the Northern Police District (NPD) Press Office.
If you come after, you will only see a corridor with darkened walls. The roof is now nothing but a black metal skeleton, with its disfigured metal sheets lying along the corridor.
Civilian-clothed police and volunteers, smudged with ashes all over, clean up what is left of the building and their belongings. Equally filthy boys from surrounding neighborhoods, paid P20 per key they find, help in rummaging through the debris.
This is the Caloocan City Police Station, and neither cops nor firefighters who were literally next door can agree what happened on the 14th of November.
At 4:30 am, Sergeant Luisito Macabalitao was the first to wake among firemen. He had to pee.
He shuffled to the bathroom at the back of the fire station. It had a small opening near the ceiling which, on a normal day, would show the sky and the roof of the police station.
As Macabalitao looked outside that morning, he saw flames rising.
"Nakita ko pong may lumalabas nang apoy sa likod ng police station, kaya po 'di ko na tinapos ang pag-ihi ko at tumakbo na akong palabas," Macabalitao said. (I saw that flames were already rising from the police station, so I was not able to finish peeing and I immediately ran outside.)
He dashed to their radio room and sounded the siren to wake up the rest of the firemen.
By that time, firemen said, they only had about 5 minutes before the blaze spread all over the police station.
The cops inside the station were supposedly fast asleep when Macabalitao saw their offices burning.
The cops, however, offered a different version of the story.
According to Caloocan City Police chief Senior Superintendent Jemar Modequillo, his men told him that the firefighters were the ones who were fast asleep that morning, not them. Modequillo was not in his office at the time of the blaze, since he was making his regular patrol rounds.
Citing the stories his cops told him, Modequillo said one of their "strikers" heard an explosion from behind the police station, then woke the cops.
According to the police, the firemen were not answering their calls so they had to run to the firemen's building to wake them up.
Where it came from
According to the initial Caloocan City Central Fire Station report, they only know that an explosion, coming from a still unknown source, triggered the fire from the building's rear.
They also know, the firemen said, that they did all they could to save the station.
By 4:35 am, the firemen had positioned a 1,000-gallon truck at the front of the police station. This, according to Caloocan City Fire Marshall Gary Alto, prevented the blaze from spreading and saved other police offices, including Modequillo's, which was on the second floor.
For reinforcements, firemen initially raised the 3rd alarm, which means fire stations from all over Caloocan City could respond.
By 5 am, the 4th alarm had been declared, which allowed firefighters from other cities to help. A total of 10 fire trucks from the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) and 20 from volunteer organizations came.
Firemen declared fire out by 6:03 am.
There were no injuries or fatalities, despite bullets in the supply room going off amid the flames.
According to investigators, they retrieved burned wires, the motor of an electric fan, and an outdated manual fuse box from the scene to get leads. These items were sent to a forensic laboratory for examination.
A loss for all
As the smoke cleared, some raised speculations that the fire may have been deliberately triggered.
But this, according to Modequillo, is an utter "impossibility."
"Bakit namin susunugin ang sarili naming istasyon, sarili naming case files? (Why would we burn down our own station, our own case files)?" he said.
After all, Modequillo pointed out, the Caloocan City police are still in the process of rebuilding after the sacking of their entire force, following a firestorm of allegations of police abuse linked to the government's drug war.
Modequillo then pointed to the men and women of his station who lost other items – computers, clothes, their workspace – but still valued their case files.
One of them is Police Senior Inspector Sonny Tepace, who has been an investigator since 1999. He is a SOCO cop, the only unit retained in the station's overhaul.
Tepace stood over burnt case files he collected for almost 20 years. He said most of their files were not backed up as the file-sharing of the Philippine National Police (PNP) had only been adopted recently.
All he had left, he said, were the flip-flops he wore as he rummaged through the torched police station.
Asked what would happen to his case files, Tepace said: "Hindi ko alam ang gagawin ko (I don't know what I will do)."
He did manage to find his damaged nameplate, buried in ashes believed to be the remnants of his burnt uniform.
According to Modequillo, now is the worst time to point fingers, but they will cooperate in the probe into the incident.
He assured his investigators and the public that the case files can still be recovered. "Meron at merong kopya 'yan (There will always be a copy somewhere)," he said.
Modequillo explained that they send copies over to the NPD, and that they print "courtesy copies" for families of victims like teenagers Kian delos Santos and Carl Arnaiz, who both died at the hands of cops in separate incidents last August.
With enough work, Modequillo said, the files can be completed once more. But with thousands lost, it is unclear how soon they can be recovered.
Right now, Caloocan City cops are focused on rebuilding both their burned station and the police force. – Rappler.com