Philippines factory fire: Criminal inquiry begins after 72 workers die in blaze

Police to investigate claims that windows on the second floor were covered with iron gills that 'could prevent even cats from escaping'

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The Independent Online

As the death toll rose to 72, police in the Philippines said they would open a criminal investigation into a trainer factory fire in which workers were apparently unable to escape through windows that were covered with iron grilles.

All bodies were believed to have been retrieved from the gutted two-story Kentex Manufacturing Corp rubber slipper factory, a day after a fire raged for over five hours in the outskirts of the capital, Manila, the Valenzuela city police chief Rhoderick Armamento said. The focus has now shifted to identifying the bodies and investigating the cause of the blaze.

At a village hall, 69 bodies were lined up as relatives wearing surgical masks streamed in to try to identify the remains through jewellery or personal items. Three other bodies had already been identified.

Among the questions being raised is whether the factory adhered to fire and building safety standards.

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Dionisio Candido, whose daughter, granddaughter, sister-in-law and niece were among the missing, said iron grilles reinforced with fencing wire covered windows on the second floor that “could prevent even cats from escaping”. He said he was allowed to enter the gutted building, where he saw charred remains “piled on top of each other”.

Trapped workers sent their relatives frantic text messages from the second floor asking for help, but contact was lost soon after, local media said.

Police will file charges against “all those accountable and those at fault”, the police Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina said.

The Interior Secretary, Mar Roxas, said the city’s fire marshal and two other fire department officers were relieved to hear of the criminal investigation. The fire marshal, Mel Jose Lagan, had earlier told reporters that arson investigators will look into why the people were unable to escape from the second floor when there was a “sufficient exit” that includes a wide stairway to the back of the building that leads outside.

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They will also look into whether there were more people inside the building than allowed.

Iron bars on windows are common in offices, factories and homes in the Philippines to keep away thieves. In workplaces, they are also meant to prevent employees from stealing equipment.

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The Valenzuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian said that a worker’s log book was lost in the fire and the foreman was among the dead, making it difficult to determine how many were inside the factory at the time.

Mr Gatchalian said the fire was apparently ignited by sparks from welding work at the factory’s main entrance, triggering an explosion of the chemicals used to make the slippers. Workers fled to the second floor where they were trapped, he said.

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The District Fire Marshal Wilberto Rico Neil Kwan Tiu said the building had other exits but workers were apparently overwhelmed by the thick black smoke from the burning rubber and chemicals.

AP

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