Mall fire: Duterte weeps for 37 dead
DAVAO CITY—A fire that swept through a shopping mall in Davao City was believed to have killed at least 37 employees of an American call center housed in the building, according to local officials.
Firefighters found one burned body as the blaze was brought under control on Sunday, but 36 others remained missing and were feared dead, Mayor Sara Duterte, President Duterte’s daughter, told reporters.
Mayor Duterte said firefighters had “assessed that no one would survive in that heat and with that thick, black smoke.”
Six people were rescued and taken to the hospital.
The President, who served more than two decades as Davao mayor, visited distraught relatives on Saturday night at a restaurant near the burning mall.
Pictures released by Malacañang showed him visibly moved by the tragedy. In one, he was wiping tears and in a couple of others he was consoling weeping women.
“It’s hard to imagine they could still be alive but let us pray,” Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles quoted Mr. Duterte as telling the relatives.
The President said the missing had “zero chance of survival,” added Valles, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
Wails of grief and disbelief followed the President’s statement.
One woman wept in the arms of her husband, demanding those responsible for the fire be held accountable. “I will have nobody to cook breakfast for every morning anymore,” she cried.
The couple’s 29-year-old daughter, Analiza Penarejo, was among those missing.
A call center for Survey Sampling International (SSI) Davao, which occupied the fourth floor of New City Commercial Center Mall, is part of global data provider SSI of Shelton, Connecticut.
The blaze started at a third floor furniture store around 9:30 a.m. on Saturday as mall employees and SSI staff began their weekend shift, said Senior Insp. Ma. Teresita Gaspan, spokesperson for the city police.
Many who traveled far to meet the President expected to hear good news about their missing husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who were mostly their families’ breadwinners.
Elenita Liwayan, 46, and her live-in partner, Rommel, endured 12 hours on a “habal-habal” (motorcycle-for-hire) and a bus from the upland village of New Malitbog in Panabo City, Davao del Norte, to get word on her eldest daughter, Charlyn, 23.
But like the others, all they got was the terrible news.
“She (Charlyn) was allergic to smoke. She would cough easily and have difficulty breathing if she’s exposed to smoke,” Elenita told the Inquirer.
“[On] Dec. 20, she sent me some money and promised to spend New Year’s Day with us in Malitbog. Now, that may not happen anymore. I’m still hoping for a miracle to happen,” she added.
James Basalan, 27, said it was supposed to be the last workday this year for his younger brother, Jonas.
Basalan said he got a text message from 25-year-old Jonas on Friday night, asking if he and other relatives were affected by the severe flooding that hit the city due to Tropical Storm “Vinta” (international name: Tembin). “I texted him back ‘We’re OK,’” he said.
That was their last exchange of messages, said Basalan, who wanted to help put out the blaze to find his brother.
From Lucena City in Quezon province, Judilyn Solis and her family were holding out hope her eldest sibling, Jessica, 30, had somehow survived.
“We’re still looking forward to her return home for the New Year celebration,” a tearful Judilyn said as she and her parents headed to Manila to catch a plane to Davao where her sister worked as a manager for SSI.
Firefighters have not completely put out the blaze early on Sunday, with pockets of flames erupting inside the building, which was built in 2003 and owned by the trading company Lim Tian Siu Inc.
In respect for the grief of those who had lost loved ones, Mayor Duterte ordered the postponement of other activities scheduled for the city’s Pasko Fiesta festivities. —WITH REPORTS FROM DELFIN T. MALLARI JR., THE WIRES
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