Philippine police treating factory fire as arson

Protesters display sandals during a rally to call for justice for the victims of this week's fire in Manila. Picture: AFP/Getty
Protesters display sandals during a rally to call for justice for the victims of this week's fire in Manila. Picture: AFP/Getty
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Philippine police are treating a fire that killed at least 72 factory workers who became trapped on the building’s second floor as a criminal act.

All bodies were believed to have been retrieved from the gutted two-story Kentex Manufacturing Corporation rubber slipper factory, a day after the fire raged for more than five hours in the Manila suburb, said Valenzuela city police chief Rhoderick Armamento.

“Not even a cat could escape by the window grills”

Dionisio Candido

Relatives said that there were iron grills on windows that prevented the victims from escaping.

Yesterday the focus shifted to identifying the bodies and investigating the cause of the blaze, the police chief said.

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

Among the questions raised yesterday were whether the factory met fire and building safety standards.

Dionisio Candido, whose daughter, granddaughter, sister-in-law and niece were among the missing, said iron grills ­reinforced with fencing wire covered windows on the second floor that “could prevent even cats from escaping”.

He said authorities allowed him to enter the gutted building, where he saw charred remains “piled on top of each other”.

Relatives told local media their family members sent frantic text messages asking for help from the second floor before contact was lost.

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

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said the city’s fire marshal and two other fire department officers were relieved of duty.

One of them, fire marshal Mel Jose Lagan, had earlier told reporters that arson investigators would 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 leading to the outside.

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

Iron grill bars on windows are common in offices, factories and homes in the Philippines to keep away thieves.

In workplaces or factories, they are also meant to prevent employees from stealing equipment or products.

Mayor Rex Gatchalian said that a workers’ 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.

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

District Fire Marshal Wilberto Rico Neil Kwan Tiu said that the building had other exits, but apparently the workers were overwhelmed by the thick black smoke from the burning rubber and chemicals, which are highly flammable and caused the blaze to spread quickl throughout the premises.