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Mall blaze probers uncover lapses in fire safety

DEADLY BLAZE A firefighter battles the fire that engulfed New City Commercial Center in Davao City, killing 38 people, on Dec. 23. BARRY OHAYLAN

DAVAO CITY — Investigators looking into the fire that tore through a four-story shopping mall in Davao City on Dec. 23 last year, killing at least 38 people, said on Wednesday that there were indications of fire safety lapses that might have contributed to the tragedy.

All of those who perished, except for one security guard, were workers at a 24-hour call center operated by the American research company Survey Sampling International (SSI) on the top floor of New City Commercial Center (NCCC), which burned for 32 hours, dampening Christmas celebrations in President Duterte’s hometown.

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The government has suspended the operations of the shopping mall and SSI, citing failure to fully comply with fire safety requirements for five successive years.

Survivors had reported that they had difficulty fleeing the fire because of a lack of emergency exits. They also had claimed that the building’s fire alarm and sprinkler systems failed to work.

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Registration suspended

Charito Plaza, director general of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (Peza), said on Wednesday that the agency had suspended the operations of NCCC and SSI for failing to meet certain safety requirements since 2013.

“They can operate again once they get a clearance from the Bureau of Fire (Protection) and the local government,” Plaza told Reuters in a text message.

The suspension took effect on Dec. 29, but it covers only SSI’s branch in Davao City. SSI’s branch in Cebu would not be affected as it has been complying with Peza rules, Plaza said.

NCCC has denied the alleged violations, insisting it has met safety requirements.

Reuters said an SSI official declined to comment and referred the news agency to its legal representative.

SSI employed 300 people at the Davao call center. Since the fire, Reuters said, the company has said it will not comment until after the investigations are concluded.

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Four fire officials being questioned over the blaze have been relieved of their duties after initial findings from a probe showed they have “some liabilities,” Reuters said, quoting a government investigator who spoke to the news agency on Monday.

Safety rules broken

Senior Supt. Jerry Candido, spokesperson for a task force investigating the fire, told the Inquirer by phone on Wednesday that the group had established violations of safety rules, especially of the fire exit and fire alarm requirements.

Investigators, however, would look at all the evidence before making a determination of who were liable for the fire, he said.

Candido said initial findings ran counter to the certificate of fire safety inspection that the local Bureau of Fire Protection office issued to NCCC and SSI last year.

“In the after-inspection report, there was no violation cited [by the fire inspectors] except for the conduct of fire drill. Based [on] our verification inspection, there were really violation[s] on fire exit and the automatic fire suppression system of the whole building and SSI,” Candido said.

He said the fire drill conducted with SSI workers late last year was poorly attended, with only about a dozen of the company’s 300 employees showing up.

“The building itself has fire exits and in the case of SSI or the fourth floor, the fire exit was from end to end, but these were not fire safety-compliant. Even the fire door had no fire rating because it was made of glass and concrete. When you step out of the office, the way leading to the stairs [was] the horizontal fire exit and the stairs [were] a vertical fire exit,” Candido said.

Investigators also found that the horizontal and vertical emergency exits at SSI were left open, causing thick smoke to quickly engulf the top floor, he said.

“These should have been fully [closed] … so that smoke could not penetrate. If there was an opening, it would be useless. We found out that during the fire, these [were] half-open,” he said.

The fire broke out at a furniture and fabric store on a lower floor of the building before engulfing the call center’s offices on the top floor.

Unaware of the fire

Candido said the call center workers were unaware that a fire had broken out in the building and learned about it only when thick smoke reached their floor.

Investigators found that SSI’s sprinkler and alarm systems were not linked to NCCC’s safety systems, he said.

“It should have been connected [to] the [building’s] system so that when fire breaks out on the other floors, the SSI system will be triggered,” he said.

“We also found out that the NCCC fire alarms and sprinkler system [were] not automatic but on manual setting at the time,” he added.

Candido said initial findings pointed to short circuit as the cause of the fire. He said the short occurred on the ceiling of the third floor, below SSI.

Finished by Thursday

Candido said the task force would wrap up the investigation by Thursday.

“We will finish evaluating all documents before we can [announce] what cases will be filed against whom,” he said.

Asked about reports that firefighters had taken long to respond, Candido said the fire alarm was received by the Talomo Fire Station, the nearest to NCCC, at 10:05 a.m. on Dec. 23. The fire broke out at about 9:30 a.m.

He said the theory was that the people inside the burning mall had panicked and in the rush to save themselves, no one had thought of calling the authorities for help.

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TAGS: Charito Plaza, NCCC mall fire, Peza, SSI
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