MANILA, Philippines – On the second floor of Maysan barangay hall in Valenzuela City, a man in his mid-50s stood by the balcony. His brows were furrowed, his face lined with wrinkles. His eyes stared out blankly at the curious onlookers below. The Philippine flag beside him flew at half mast.
The city of Valenzuela is in mourning, a day after at least 72 people died in a horrific blaze that engulfed a footwear factory in Barangay Ugong.
Tearful relatives, many in shock and disbelief, trooped to the barangay hall on Thursday, May 14, to look for their children, siblings, and friends, as officials began the heartbreaking task of identifying the victims killed in the 7-hour fire that gutted Kentex Manufacturing Corporation.
Except for 3 bodies – the first recovered from the accident site – all 69 had been burnt beyond recognition.
Around 5 pm on Thursday, grieving families lined up in batches to view the remains of their loved ones, sealed in black body bags. They later joined another queue to provide DNA samples to investigators.
Novaliches resident Rosalinda Cabrito arrived at the barangay hall past noon to look for the body of her aunt, Beth Balico.
She had been looking for her since she heard the news that the footwear factory where Balico devoted more than a decade of her life was engulfed in flames.
"One of my neighbors also works there. He managed to escape, by jumping out of the window from the second floor," Cabrito said.
The neighbor also recalled that most of the victims trapped inside were women, who hesitated when the men told them to jump out from the burning building.
But of Balico, Cabrito has had no news. The family hoped that she had escaped by some miracle, but more than 24 hours had gone by with still no sign of her.
The 46-year-old Balico had left behind 4 sons, the youngest only 9 years old. She also left a husband in disbelief and grief at having narrowly escaped the fire.
"They both work in the same factory. But on that day, my uncle had to go and make a delivery, so he wasn't inside the factory," Cabrito said.
"When he heard the news, he was in shock. He wanted to rush in and look for her, but the firemen held him back. No one could enter the building," she added.
"My uncle just collapsed on the curb. He hasn't been eating, he hasn't been speaking. He just sits there, his eyes vacant."
Photo by Francis Malasig/EPA
Locked exit door
As authorities scramble to try and piece together the series of events that led to the tragedy, the victims' families are demanding answers: What went wrong? Why did so many die, so quickly?
In a press conference, Valenzuela City fire marshal Superintendent Mel Jose Lagan said the city's Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) was not deficient in conducting their inspections for fire safety.
Kentex Manufacturing Corporation had passed the latest safety assessment and the building had enough exit points, he said. (READ: Valenzuela factory passed occupational safety checks – DOLE)
But the problem is that the establishments may have committed fire safety violations, such as adding more people inside the factory than what was allowed, after passing the annual inspection.
One of the details investigators are looking into are claims that the fire exit inside the building was locked.
Noriel Coralde, 18, one of the few who survived the incident, said they even had to use a metal object to destroy the lock on the fire exit.
He also described how some of the workers panicked when they saw the flames spreading.
Initial reports indicated that the fire was caused by a welding activity, which in turn sparked nearby flammable chemicals also stored within the compound.
"It all happened too fast. We just heard something explode, then we saw the smoke and flames, and we rushed upstairs. Many people were in a panic, they didn't know how to escape," Coralde said.
Lagan earlier told reporters that they could not yet confirm these reports, because the door was already destroyed when the investigation began. (READ: We’ll make culprits pay for Valenzuela deaths – Roxas)
Not all of those who came to Maysan had someone to grieve for. Maria Celsita Patoc did not lose anyone in the fire, but she came all the same to pay her respects to the dead.
"Gusto kong makiramay sa mga namatayan. Kawawa naman sila, nagsisikap sila at naghahanap-buhay nang maayos para sa mga pamilya nila, tapos ito ang mangyayari," Patoc said.
(I want to condole with the bereaved. I pity them. They strive to make an honest living for their families, then this happened.)
She added that the prevailing sentiment among the barangay's residents was anger at what they perceived was lax safety measures.
The steel barriers on the windows of the building's second floor, for example, made it difficult for trapped workers to get out in time.
"Marami sana ang nabuhay (They would have been more survivors)," Patoc said.
Twenty four hours after the tragedy, the mood at the barangay hall was serious and somber, as caskets and body bags were brought in while grieving families shared their stories. Strangers listened in and offered words of comfort, the only thing they could do with no clear answers yet to the families' questions.
"Kahit di ka kamag-anak, maiiyak ka rin (Even if you're not a relative, you'd be in tears, too)," one stranger said. – Rappler.com