Manila: Seventy-two people died in a huge blaze at a footwear factory in the Philippine capital, authorities said Thursday, as angry relatives and workers described sweatshop conditions including dismal fire safety standards.
Firefighters and police pulled dozens of corpses out of the ruins of the two-storey building on Thursday, a day after the blaze trapped the terrified workers with apparently few exits and no fire safety training.
“Many of those retrieved were reduced to skulls and bones,” national police chief Leonardo Espina said during an emotional press conference, as local authorities confirmed 72 people had died.
“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. For sure, someone will be charged.”
Sparks from welding equipment used to repair a broken gate are believed to have caused the fire when they ignited flammable chemicals stored nearby.
By early afternoon on Thursday, 72 bodies had been pulled from the gutted building, Valenzuela mayor Rex Gatchalian told AFP.
He said he believed this would be close to the final death toll, as the figure matched the number of people missing.
The building, among a long row of factories in the rundown district of Valenzuela 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.
– No safety standards –
The factory workers toiled for 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 about what happened. We will never forget this,” Rodrigo Nabor, whose two sisters were inside the factory and remain unaccounted for, told AFP.
Nabor was among relatives of factory workers waiting for body bags at a village hall that had been converted into a makeshift morgue.
“I’ve lost hope that they survived,” said Nabor, 31, who works at a nearby plywood factory.
“I can’t explain how I’m feeling. I didn’t sleep at all last night. I just kept walking around the factory hoping for news.”
Nabor said his sisters, Bernardita Logronio, 32, and Jennylyn Nabor, 26, often complained of foul-smelling chemicals in their workplace.
“They said they keep an electric fan on to drive some of the smell away,” he said.
Nabor said their pay depended on how many sandals they finished, which could be as little as 300 pesos ($6.70) a day. Nabor’s sisters each had a young child.
One survivor, 23-year-old Lisandro Mendoza, said he escaped by running out the back door, but that the company had not conducted any fire safety education or drills during his five months working there.
“We were running not knowing exactly where to go,” said Mendoza.
“I was having lunch when I saw smoke coming from the front, then I just ran and kept running.”
Mendoza said he worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, for 3,500 pesos ($79), mixing chemicals.
“It’s a very foul smell. I can still smell it even if I have one face mask on top of the another,” he said.
Another survivor, Janet Victoriano, also described lax fire safety standards.
“I had never been involved in a fire drill ever,” Victoriano, who had worked at the factory for five years, told DZMM radio.
Victoriano said she was able to escape because she was near the front door when the blaze started.
Deadly fires regularly rip through the poor areas of the Philippine capital, but mostly in shanty homes where there are virtually no fire safety standards.
In the deadliest fire in Manila in recent times, 162 people were killed in a huge blaze that gutted a Manila disco in 1996.