MANILA, Philippines — What was supposed to be a day filled with merrymaking turned into one of the most tragic moments in the lives of thousands of families in San Juan City, after their houses were razed by a monster fire early Tuesday morning.
The fire, which began in the house of Francisco Paulete on Marne St. at 2:25 a.m., tore down 180 houses all in all, leaving around 2,000 families homeless on Christmas Day.
A person died and 19 people were injured–two of them firemen and another a fire volunteer.
According to Fire Officer 1 Jericho Ala, one of the responding fire officers, resident Michael Munoz, 32, was mauled to death after several of his neighbors in Barangay (village) St. Joseph suspected him of starting the fire that reached the general alarm.
Chief Inspector Gilbert Dolot, the city’s fire marshal, however, denied the allegations, saying the fire was most likely caused by a candle left unattended.
“There was no electricity in the house where the fire started, according to the residents. Some of the residents confirmed there was a candle being used there at that time,” Dolot said.
Senior Fire Officer 2 Ramon Abrera and fire volunteer Wilfredo Tiongson both sustained a cut in the head after bottles were thrown at them by residents who wanted them to train their hoses on their houses first, Dolot said.
FO1 Lizandro Ocampo, meanwhile, sustained bruises after he was punched and kicked by some infuriated squatters.
Dolot said there were also reports of residents pointing guns at firefighters.
“The crowd was very unruly. This wasn’t your ordinary crowd because some of them were drunk as it was Christmas Eve, while others possibly high (on drugs),” Dolot said.
He said the crowd was the primary reason why it took firefighters long to put out the fire.
He said the unruly behavior of some of the residents caused some of the fire volunteers to leave the scene for fear of their lives.
The initial 60 trucks that rushed to the fire dwindled to over 30 firetrucks as a result, he said.
Senior Supt. Rainier Espina, chief of police, said authorities were still studying whether to file charges against the unruly residents.
Meanwhile, Dolot added that the houses in the area were made of light materials, which enabled the fire to spread quickly.
He said firetrucks could not immediately access the origin of the fire because of the narrow streets.
A fire-out was eventually declared at 7:07 a.m.
FO2 Noel Binwag, arson investigator, said, however, that a blaze rekindled around 10 a.m. in the area, but this was immediately put out.
Some of the affected families have been temporarily staying at the barangay’s basketball court.
Many have spilled over to the nearby post office, and even in front of the city’s central fire station.
According to Binwag, only Paulete’s son Simon,8, and his niece, Edilyn, 2, were inside the house when the fire broke out.
Paulete, he said, was having a drinking session outside.
He said the two children were taken out of the house and were unharmed.
Damage to property was estimated at P2.5million.
A resident who lives in a concrete house on Marne St. beside the squatters’ area, slammed what she said was the inefficiency of the San Juan Police and fire department.
Andree Lagdameo, a real estate business worker, said she saw with her own eyes how two policemen stood idly by while some squatters attacked firefighters who were training their hoses on a house.
She said she couldn’t make out the names of the policemen because it was already dark at that time.
She said she also saw how the same policemen did not do anything when one enraged squatter climbed up a fire truck and attacked the driver.
“It was so disgusting. What are they policemen for? The San Juan Police is really ineffective,” she said.
Aside from these incidents, she cited another instance when she called the police department and talked to one Veronica Vicente to inform her about a possible rekindling of the fire around 10 a.m. near her house.
She said the firemen arrived only an hour later, and when they did, they went straight to an area three houses away from hers to try to put out another rekindling fire.
She said she told Dolot to send other firetrucks near her house, but he reportedly ignored her.
“There were four fire trucks behind him and I told him to go around and access (the area near my house) through Ibuna St. but he didn’t do anything,” she said.
She said it took fire volunteers from Binondo, Paco, to put out what could have been another big fire near her house.