Death toll in Manila factory fire hits 72
ANGER simmered in the Philippines yesterday as the death toll in a huge blaze at a footwear factory rose to 72. Survivors blamed barred windows for the disaster and described sweatshop conditions.
The fire, which occurred in Manila's Valenzuela district on Wednesday, reflects poor occupational health and safety standards that are a challenge for South-east Asia's fastest-growing nation to tackle, analysts say.
Nearly all of those killed in the five-hour blaze were trapped on the second floor of the two-storey building, unable to break steel bars over the windows, according to survivors.
"They were screaming for help, holding on to the bars," factory worker Randy Paghubosan, one of the few on the ground floor who escaped, told Agence France-Presse as faint smoke billowed from the ruins yesterday.
"When we could no longer see their hands, we knew they had died... they died because they were trapped on the second floor."
Firefighters and police officers pulled dozens of corpses out of the ruins yesterday.
"Many of those retrieved were reduced to skulls and bones," national police chief Leonardo Espina said during an emotional press conference, as the local authorities confirmed that 72 people had died.
Mr Espina said: "Someone will definitely be charged because of the deaths. It doesn't matter if it's an accident, people died. Right now, we are investigating to clearly define what happened."
Factory owner Veato Ang said about 200 to 300 people worked in the factory before it was engulfed in flames.
Sparks from welding equipment - used to repair a broken gate - were believed to have caused the fire when they ignited flammable chemicals stored nearby.
Valenzuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian said he believed 72 would be close to the final death toll, as the figure matched the number of people missing.
The building, along a long row of factories on the northern edge of the Philippine capital, made cheap slippers and sandals for the local market.
The footwear had names such as "Havana" that sound like well-known global brands, company employees said.
The factory workers toiled for a below-minimum wage while surrounded by foul-smelling chemicals and were not aware of fire-safety standards, survivors and relatives said.
"The families can't help but be angry over what happened. We will never forget this," said Rodrigo Nabor, whose two sisters were inside the factory and remain unaccounted for.
Mr Nabor was among relatives of factory workers waiting for body bags at a village hall that had been converted into a makeshift mortuary.
He said his sisters, Bernardita Logronio, 32, and Jennylyn Nabor, 26, often complained of foul-smelling chemicals at their workplace.
Mr Nabor said their pay depended on how many sandals they finished, and could be as little as 300 pesos (S$26) a day. His sisters each had a young child.
One survivor, 23-year-old Lisandro Mendoza, said he escaped by running out the back door, and that the company had not conducted any fire-safety education or drills during his five months working there.
Mr Mendoza said he worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, for 3,500 pesos, mixing chemicals.
The incident put President Benigno Aquino's government in a bad light, said Eufracia Taylor, an analyst at global risk analytics firm Verisk Maplecroft.
"The factory fire is a blow to the Aquino administration, which has prided itself on improving workplace conditions and prioritising compliance with labour standards," Ms Taylor said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS