Shopping mall fire: When will we ever learn?

In Photo: A fire strikes the New City Commercial Center shopping mall in Davao City on December 23, 2017, and caused the death of the mall-safety officer and 37 employees of a United States call-center facility.

Conclusion

DAVAO CITY—Identifying the bodies of the ill-fated victims of the December 23 NCCC mall fire would be tedious and difficult.

Authorities said the victims were likely felled by the poisonous smoke, and the heat that followed shortly had charred their bodies later.

The remains of Melvin Gaa, the lone non-RN SSI employee, was identified by his wife Rosela four days after the fire.

The NCCC Mall management confirmed the death of Gaa, one of its employees. Gaa was the mall-safety officer who had brought SSI employees to safety, according to Mall Spokesman Thea Padua.

But the search was not yet over even after personnel of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) found the scattered, charred remains of 36 individuals. The search was launched anew for a final name that surfaced: that of Alexandra Moreno-Castillo.

Moreno-Castillo, a quality-assurance supervisor at the American firm Research Now Survey Sampling International (RN SSI), was also reported as among those who helped fellow employees escape the fire.

Fire Senior Supt. Jerry Candido, spokesman of the Inter-Agency Anti-Arson Task Force, later said her body was recovered on January 4, already 12 days after the fire. In a somber tone, Candido explained that the remains of Moreno-Castillo was found stuck at the crevice of the charred floors of the RN SSI office at the fourth floor of the NCCC Mall.

Found near the remains was a Volkswagen Beetle steel keychain, a passport inside the folds of a burnt purse and the frame of a pair of eyeglasses. Moreno-Castillo’s family said these items were hers.

Accounting time

CANDIDO said the continuing probe at the NCCC Mall would now shift to gathering more evidence of guilt and identifying the guilty.

Only a week after the incident, the probe body composed of the national offices of the BFP, the National Bureau of Investigation and other national agencies, took over the investigation from the local BFP and ordered the relief of five BFP officers from their post.

They were: Fire Supt. Honey Fritz Alagano, Davao district fire marshal; Fire Insp. Renero Jimenez, Talomo fire station commander; Senior Fire Officer 1 Leo Lauzon, fire safety inspector who inspected the mall’s call center; Fire Officer 2 Joel Quizmundo, fire-safety inspector of the NCCC Mall; and, Sr. Fire Officer 1 Roger Dumag, chief of the fire-safety enforcement section.

The Inter-Agency Anti-Arson Task Force found violations of fire safety and yet the NCCC Mall and the RN SSI were still given the Fire Safety Inspection Certificate (FSIC).

For instance, Candido was quoted in a local newspaper that Quizmondo, who inspected the NCCC Mall last  April, only recommended the establishment conduct fire- safety drills after his inspection report. Candido added the report did not include the apparent violations they saw and the fire rating of the NCCC Mall.

Altered system

AFTER inspection, the violations should have been included in the report and to let these be acknowledged by the person responsible: the administrator, the manager or owner of the building, Candido said.

He added that the NCCC Mall had several other violations like failing to prove it is smoke-proof and heat-proof. Both are required by the Fire Code of the Philippines.

He said the sprinkler and alarm systems were neither functioning, with the mall’s third-floor sprinkler system found with no sprinkler head.

“Because it was altered, the system did not work during the fire that started at the third floor,” Candido said.

The alarm system was also defective, with the NCCC Mall system not connected with that of the RN SSI alarm system so that when a fire breaks out inside the mall, the RN SSI would not know it, and also the other way around, he added.

“The alarm system of the mall is ordinarily designed as automatic, but did not function at the time of fire,” Candido said. “Sprinklers did not function, [they were] altered because the valve system has been closed.”

Candido added the cause of the fire was “electrical short circuit” and traced to the ceiling of the third floor. When they examined the electrical wiring system, he said the “way the contractor installed the wires, there were nails and bolts near the wires and we believe it caused the short circuit” when the insulation wore off.

Finger pointing

A senior police officer who requested anonymity said he believes the loss of lives could have been prevented or lessened had there been “a quick thinking, brave and no-nonsense ground commander” on site.

He added he based this view on the comments of people and rubberneckers outside the mall. The police said if the comments were true, “that firemen outside lingered for several hours, point to the lack of a critical leader commanding his men.”

“He could have asserted his command against the wishes of the mall owners or managers, and he should have ordered critical resources to be brought in, or to force damage to the building to build ventilation,” the police officer added. “He could even ram the fire trucks through vehicles that obstruct the way, citing emergency nature, and to face court cases later, knowing that the city government would stand by him and his decision that time.”

Meanwhile, the Business Process Outsourcing Employees Network has appealed to investigators to ensure an unbiased report.

They said previous incidents have pointed to establishments were still allowed to operate, despite having been found to have violated fire-safety standards.

The city government has kept its distance from the investigation.

Image credits: commons.wikimediaorg

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