Shopping mall fire: When  will we ever learn? (Part Two)

Photo from CNN Philippines

DAVAO CITY—Two days before Christmas, the city sidewalks here were busy: people passing, meeting smile after smile.

At another sidewalk, along the Maa Highway, people were agape.

Others were restless; still others asking why some firemen were not performing the tasks expected of them: put out a fire eating up the NCCC Mall and snuffing the life of people inside. A call-center agent of a building almost across the mall claimed she only saw one fire truck hosing water, but only barely touching the square billboard that banners the name of the shopping center.

That didn’t sit well with her.

“We could not work well seeing that mall in fire because we know that inside, there are call-center agents like us. The smoke was still going out at the center tower above that billboard but the water could not go higher,” she told the BusinessMirror. “We prayed for rain as the fire spread to the back portion. No one punched holes into the walls.”

The call-center agent, who requested anonymity, pointed to the upper portion of the wall that has revealed the skeletons of closely spaced steel posts of the burning building.

“It’s only about  4 p.m. that a lot of hosing was done,” she added. She walked away later to report for her assigned shift.

Popping out

THE closely spaced steel posts of the burning building became a skeleton after people inside apparently tried to punch holes in the wall. That was what witnesses said they noticed around late morning, or nearly two hours after the fire broke out, estimated to be at 9:30 a.m.

That area was where a chicken-food house was. A supervisor of a company supplying products to the NCCC Mall said she thinks she saw portions of the wall being chipped off from the inside. She added that belief was confirmed when heads popped out through the wall.

“But they could not get out because of the steel posts. And there were no rescuers there,” she said. The woman said she went to the mall to supervise the “‘dizers”—short for merchandizers, or those in charge of placing and sorting merchandise on shelves.

It was the dizers who informed her  that “there is fire in the mall.”

Heroes abound

HEROISM appears to be everywhere in life-and-death situations, the NCCC Mall fire being one of them.

Behind one story of heroism was Mikko Salazar Demafeliz.

The 31-year-old Demafeliz was a man recognizable from a distance due to his towering 5’10” frame. He was everyone’s kuya (big brother), an employee of Research Now Survey Sampling International  (RN SSI) said.

Survivors like RN SSI employee Sheila felt distressed when they saw Demafeliz going back to the fourth floor when he was already seen with survivors at the lower floor.

“Someone said he was already out of the fourth floor and onto safety, but some others also said they saw him go back,” the 21-year-old Sheila (not her real name) said. “I know he went back to save the others.”

Latip also heard the same account.

Melvin Gaa also did a Demafeliz.

NCCC Mall Spokesman Thea Padua said Gaa was a member of the NCCC Emergency Action Team (NEAT) “who had helped bring down the 83 surviving SSI employees and an estimated 700 NCCC Mall personnel and visitors who were also brought out by NEAT and the mall’s emergency fire brigade.”

“Gaa had already brought down several SSI employees and was already seen having safely exited the building at the ground floor,” Padua said. “But, instead of remaining downstairs, he went upstairs again to try to save more people.”

Search for the trapped

CHIEF Insp. Joycelun Grant, Davao City district deputy fire marshall, said the various comments against the firemen and BFP rescue personnel were disheartening and unkind to the men and women who responded to the NCCC fire.

According to Grant, also spokesman for the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP), BFP responders arrived at the scene by 10 a.m. Some of them had also entered the mall, she said.

Firefighting is not only about hosing water alone, Grant said. She explained it would be difficult to decide which response mode would best be applied to a fire happening inside and away from any point of visual evaluation.

Water, she said, is not appropriate for certain combustible materials, “as it might cause more damage and [cause the fire to] spread [rather] than suppress it.”

In some cases, “we have to use foam.”

Grant said she was inside the mall by 1  p.m., specifically at the Kadayawan Hall at the right side of the annex building’s ground floor. “The firemen and rescuers were there earlier than me,” she added. “The smoke was really overpowering, very hurting to the eyes.”

Zero chance

ACCORDING to Senior Supt. Wilberto Rico Neil A. Kwan Tiu, the smoke Grant was referring to is not the same as “the smoke that you [saw] coming out of the mall.”

Tiu, the director of the Davao regional office of the BFP, said the smoke was the one formed by various superheated gases and melted materials, such as plastics that emit dangerous gases like cyanide.

He explained the search for the trapped RN SSI employees began as soon as the survivors started to pinpoint where those trapped were believed to be located. According to Sheila, some of their fellow agents were last seen in the lockers and the rest room.

Tiu said the intense heat, thick, black smoke and superheated gases were also too much for the rescuers. He said the heat alone could reach between 500 degrees and 700 degrees Celsius, more than enough to melt their hazmat suits, helmets and
protective clothing.

By nightfall, as the search continued, authorities had the unenviable task of informing anxious families and relatives, including the surviving RN SSI employees, that the “situation inside would render zero chance of survival.”

Christmas Eve

THE following day, a Sunday and Christmas Eve, a festive day for Christians, one body was found at the locker and restroom area. None was to be found the rest of the day, as the RN SSI gave authorities the list of 37 names of their employees that were trapped in the fire, including the one who was first found.

In his apparently carefully delivered narrative toward the end of a necrological Mass outside the mall, Tiu said the BFP personnel and other rescuers found “them, all 36 of them, near the stairwell and near the elevator.”

The bodies were scattered in the lobby and, according to the account of Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, “they were only about two feet from the stairs.”

“My only failure in this situation is I failed to command and forcefully direct my men to penetrate the area where they are, despite the 500-  to 700-degree heat enough to melt our coats; that I failed to command and forcefully direct my men to crawl their way in despite the superheated gases and thick smoke,” Tiu said. “Every time we go forward, we have to go back, driven away by the heat.”

A groan of disbelief and sadness filled the atmosphere when Tiu finally confirmed the discovery of the bodies.

To be continued





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