MANILA, Philippines -- A major fire broke out at the Commission on Elections (Comelec) headquarters in historic Intramuros, Manila, early Sunday morning, barely two months before national elections.
No deaths or injuries have been reported and the fire that razed the old building housing some of the poll body's offices will not affect preparations for the May elections, Comelec spokesman James Jimenez told INQUIRER.net.
National polls will be held on May 14 to elect the entire 250-member House of Representatives, half the 24-strong Senate and more than 17,000 public officials, including governors and mayors.
"It won't affect the preparations for elections," Jimenez, director of the Comelec's education and information department, said in a call from Singapore.
Jimenez and election commissioner Florentino Tuason were in Singapore to give a training on voting by mail when they received the news about the fire.
Election commissioner Rene Sarmiento, who was at the scene, said the fire would ?slightly affect our preparations but nothing substantial.?
Jimenez, whose office was among those destroyed, said the fire was reportedly caused by faulty electrical wiring.
"It was electrical. It spread very quickly. It razed the main building including. We don't have an office anymore," Jimenez said.
Firefighters pulled out only on Sunday afternoon after putting out some flames that continued to burn by the building?s entrance and clearing debris from the remains of the second floor.
Ludivico Banal, station commander of the first district fire station said the fire broke out just before 1 a.m. and the first firefighters arrived three minutes after learning of the blaze. At least 15 firetrucks responded to the fire call and the blaze was declared under control around 4:30 a.m.
Ironically, firefighters from the Intramuros fire substation, just a stone?s throw away from the Comelec building, said the blaze was reported to them late, making it difficult for them to contain the blaze.
?It was reported late to us,? Inspector David Saob, Intramuros substation commander, said. ?In our area, fires don?t usually become that big.?
Records showed the Intramuros firefighters responded at 12:51 a.m., or about 10 minutes after the blaze was said to have begun.
By that time, Saob said the fire was already huge.
Investigators placed the damage to property at P20 million, including four vehicles.
Reports said the fire originated at the General Services Division on the ground floor of the building?s Arzobispo Street side. Other witnesses said the fire started at the motor-pool area, where the generator set of the building was located.
Comelec executive director Jose Pio Joson was the highest ranking official staying inside the building when the fire broke out.
Joson, who was still at the burnt building Sunday, dismissed sabotage as the cause of the fire. He said he believes it was more likely due to ?negligence.?
The election official said he was awakened by the smell of something burning and thought it was his air-conditioner. When he opened the window of the record's room, he saw the fire crawling towards the room.
He quickly gathered his personal belongings but left his mobile phone, pants, underwear and eyeglasses with 18-karat gold rims that he said were a ?gift from my wife.?
Jimenez said the poll body's "mission-critical systems" like the voters' list, are safely "mirrored" at the nearby Palacio del Gobernador (Governor's Palace) building. Most of the records destroyed in the fire were personnel records, he said, but added most of these, too, were "mirrored."
The Comelec moved most of its operations and offices to the Palacio del Gobernador in 2001.
However, a Comelec employee who declined to be named said the records of the working committee on gun ban were among those lost in the fire. So too were important documents of the Election Records Statistics and Internal Audit departments.
Sarmiento confirmed that most of the records and supplies razed were for internal operations of the poll body.
?A lot of the supplies, including our admin[istration], personnel and security records are gone,? he said. He added that most of the Comelec?s supplies are now housed in a big warehouse.
The old Comelec building also houses the office of the deputy executive director for operations, the deputy executive for administration, the administration service department, and the property offices in charge of the maintenance.
Sarmiento said they still have to estimate the cost of the damage.
Some ballots were seen inside the burnt building. Sarmiento explained that these were ballots from ?pending cases that are up for resolution.?
Wynne Asdala, acting director III of the Comelec law department, also said some of the lost records were those on the inventory of ballot boxes.
Jimenez said the fire will displace a lot of Comelec employees since 500 employees were housed at the burned building.
Tuason said they are planning to transfer some of the displaced employees to the Palacio del Gobernador.
There is also an offer from Tourism Secretary Ace Durano but Tuason said they will have to study this.
Some of the poll body?s rank and file employees trooped to Intramuros to watch their office?s smoking hulk.
One teary-eyed internal audit worker said she had left her money and personal belongings in her office.
But she managed to smile and say: ?Anyway I have already submitted my reports.?
Another employee said the fire might prove to be a ?blessing in disguise? since they really need to move to a new building.
?We really have to move on. From the ashes we will rise, like a phoenix,? Sarmiento said.
Tuason, who went straight to the burned building from the airport after returning to the country Sunday afternoon with Jimenez, pointed out: ?We've been telling them [Comelec officials] the building was a fire hazard.?
?Nanghina nga ako nung nalaman ko na nasusunong ang Comelec [I felt weak when I heard that Comelec was burning],? Tuason added.
?This is an accident. It is something that we could have avoided,? he added.
Originally posted at 08:19am