For Valenzuela fire victims’ families, ‘justice, not money’
The families of those killed in the Kentex fire have a long uphill fight for justice ahead of them.
This was the opinion of Justice for Ozone Victims Foundation Inc. (JOVFI) president Joseph Stephen Santos when the Inquirer sought his comment on the blaze which struck the Valenzuela City slipper factory on May 13, leaving 72 workers dead.
JOVFI represents the families of 162 victims killed in the March 18, 1996, Ozone Disco fire in Quezon City, among them Santos’ cousin. It also helped the kin of the 75 people who perished in the Manor Hotel blaze in Quezon City in 2001 when they sued the hotel owner and government officials concerned. The three are considered the worst fires in recent Philippine history.
Asked what advice he could give to the families of those killed in the Kentex factory fire, Santos said: “They need to persevere. No amount of monetary compensation should be enough if they really want justice.”
Should they decide to file cases against the factory owner and Valenzuela City officials who allowed the establishment to operate, he urged them “to organize, as they would be filing a class suit.” He also warned them to “load up on patience.”
“If they do not persevere, nothing will happen. [The trial] will take years. Ours took 19 years [before a decision was rendered] and it’s still ongoing because an appeal was filed,” Santos said in a phone interview.
He was referring to the Sandiganbayan Fifth Division decision in November which found former Quezon City Engineer Alfredo Macapugay and six subordinates guilty of graft for giving “unwarranted and preferential advantage” to Ozone Disco owners and for failing to detect structural and fire safety deficiencies in the club. Also found guilty were Hermilo Ocampo and Ramon Ng, stockholders of club operator Westwood Entertainment Co. Inc.
The JOVFI also scored a victory in March 2001 when a Quezon City court found Ng and Ocampo guilty of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide and sentenced them to four years in prison. It also ordered them and four other Westwood board members to pay a fine of over P20 million.
“It took years but we insisted there were violations [committed by the club owners]. We also pointed out there was corruption because how did [Ozone] get permits? Even with just one violation, they shouldn’t have been given permits [by the Quezon City government] and nothing would have happened if inspections were strict,” Santos said.
He noted that Ozone club’s fire exit was blocked by a sofa while its doors swung inward instead of outward, two major factors found to have contributed to the victims being trapped inside the club.
Santos said that in the Kentex factory fire, the fact that the building had no sprinklers, fire extinguishers and fire exits were obvious violations of the building and fire codes.
“These blatant violations start with the permits allowing them to operate,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) pushed for the filing of criminal and administrative complaints against officials of the Department of Labor and Employment and the Bureau of Fire Protection who “gave [Kentex] compliance certifications” despite labor and structural violations.
In a statement, the KMU also demanded that charges be filed against Veato Ang, Kentex owner “who has clearly violated occupational health and safety standards that resulted in the death of the workers.”
Labor group Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP) likewise said that donations from the government and Kentex owners “[would] never be enough” to compensate the victims’ families for the loss of their loved ones.
In a statement, the BMP demanded that officials from the labor department and attached agencies, as well as local government officials, be held accountable for the blaze.
It said that the filing of charges would serve as “a deterrent to officials to not neglect their duties, similar to the prosecuted officials of Quezon City responsible for the Ozone Disco tragedy.”
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