18 stay-in workers killed in Butuan fire
BUTUAN CITY—A fire at a three-story clothing store here early Wednesday killed 18 employees, most of whom were women who were asleep and trapped on the top floor.
The fire broke out at 3:55 a.m. and raged for five hours. Firefighters and police scouring the gutted building found 17 bodies, city police chief Pedro Ubaldo said.
Store employee Mylene Tulo, who escaped with two coworkers, said she was roused from sleep as the fire spread rapidly in the third-floor office where they slept.
Vice Mayor Lawrence Fortun, acting chair of the city disaster risk reduction management council, said based on the account of the surviving employees, the steel door of the establishment was locked from the outside, making it difficult for anyone to escape if disaster struck.
“Accounts had it that the main door was locked so it was difficult for them to escape,” he said.
Factory owners reportedly lock up the premises to foil any plans of stay-in workers from taking off with the merchandise.
Fortun said the investigation was also trying to determine the responsibility of the store’s owners, who faced charges.
“It could be negligence resulting in multiple homicide against the store owners,” Fortun said.
Amid the inferno and yells for help, Tulo managed to dash out with her colleagues. They sustained minor burns on their arms.
“We wanted to rouse others from sleep, but the fire was already too strong,” a stunned Tulo said.
At least 20 employees, mostly women, were sleeping at the store when the fire broke out, Ubaldo said.
Many stores in the Philippines allow their employees to sleep over, especially those who live far from home.
Relatives and friends, most of them in shock and tears, gathered in search of loved ones in front of the building, where police stood with body bags of the victims’ remains.
Obaldo said investigators were trying to determine what sparked the fire and if the owners violated fire regulations.
Memory of fire exit
The building was a theater before being turned into a commercial center with several stores, including the Novo Jeans and Shirts, where most of the victims died.
Tulo said she used images from her memory of the location of the fire exit as she led coworkers Grace Canoy and Vickly Celes out of the burning building.
“The smoke was so thick that it was impossible to visually locate the exit. I used my memory to recall the way toward it,” Tulo said from her hospital bed.
Only three survivors
Tulo, Canoy and Celes were the only survivors out of the 21 stay-in workers of dry-goods and apparel store Novo Jeans and Shirts on Montilla Boulevard here.
Fire Inspector Alrick Gomez, Butuan fire marshal, said 17 bodies, mostly of women, were found by firefighters and volunteers.
“We recovered 17 bodies and they were [burned] beyond recognition,” Gomez said.
The body of an 18th victim had not been found, Gomez said.
He said the cause of the fire, which raged for more than five hours, had not been established yet, but fire investigators had ruled out arson.
Tulo, a cashier at Novo, said she tried her best to rouse her coworkers after she was awakened by the unusual heat. She said she was stunned when she realized the building was on fire.
Tulo said hard as she tried, only Canoy and Celes managed to get up, and they decided to find their way out of the burning building.
“The fire was quick to spread and suffocating heavy smoke was all over the place,” Tulo said.
Dash for life
With Canoy and Celes in tow, Tulo said she ran as fast as she could toward the exit, which was about 30 meters away from where they slept.
“Upon reaching the fire exit, we jumped off and crawled to safety,” she said.
Tulo said that from where they dropped, they could hear their coworkers, who were now roused from sleep, crying for help, but they could no longer do anything.
“Unfortunately, they got trapped,” she said. With a report from AP
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