By Jeoffrey Maitem and Dennis Jay Santos
An American firm confirmed Monday that 37 employees at its call center in the southern Philippines had died after being trapped in a massive fire that broke out over the weekend at a shopping mall where they worked.
Meanwhile, firefighters had found and recovered all 37 bodies from the burned out New City Commercial Complex (NCCC) mall in Davao City, Mayor Sara Duterte said Monday. Authorities have not yet determined the cause of the fire, but on Christmas Day, the country’s justice secretary ordered a probe into potential criminal liability.
The mayor, who is a daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, said police forensics specialists were processing the bodies for proper identification. The recovery of the 37 bodies brought to 38 the number of people killed in the blaze. The body of the first victim was found over the weekend.
As the fire still raged on Sunday, city and public safety officials had said that 37 people remained trapped inside the burning shopping center, but there was little hope that they were still alive.
“It is with deep sadness that we confirm that the 37 Research Now SSI employees were lost in the fire that struck the NCCC mall,” Gary S. Laben, the chief executive of the Texas-based firm that specializes in digital research data, said in a statement issued Monday (Philippine local time).
The 37 victims were part of the firm’s 500-strong workforce in the Philippines, he said. Its call center was housed in the four-story mall.
“We offer our condolences and prayers to the families and loved ones of the victims,” Laben said.
“Words cannot express how saddened we are. We are grateful for the courageous response of the first responders and others who rushed to the scene,” he added.
Laben said the firm had arranged counselling for all its employees, and was helping to support funeral arrangements. The firm will also create a fund for contributions to provide further assistance to the families of the employees who perished in the fire, he said.
The inferno started on Saturday morning when the mall was busy with Christmas shoppers, and lasted into Sunday.
On Monday, Philippine Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II announced that he had directed the National Bureau of Investigation to look into the tragedy.
“The order was given for the NBI to determine the presence of any criminal liability which led to the fire and attendant loss of lives,” Aguirre said in a statement.
He said the NBI, the investigative arm of the justice department, was under instructions to file criminal charges “against any parties determined by it to be responsible.”
By punishing those responsible, the government could set an example to others “so that hopefully, there will be no repetition of these tragedies,” Aguirre said.
“For now, I respectfully request everyone to continue praying for all those affected by this tragedy,” he added.
A spokesperson for the mall’s operators denied allegations that were circulating about the mall’s fire exits being locked at the time of the fire or that it had no such exits.
“There is no truth to that allegation. In fact as per accounts of those who got out, they were able get out thru the fire exit,” Thea Padua told Agence France-Presse in a text message Monday.
Other fiery tragedies
The fire at the mall in Davao City was one of the worst fires to hit a commercial or shopping center in the Philippines in years.
In March 1996, 162 mostly young adults were killed when a fire broke out at the Ozone Disco pub in Manila, in what has come to be known as the world’s seventh deadliest club fire.
Two years ago, 75 people were killed after the Kentex plastics and rubber factory burned down in a northern Manila suburb.
The mall blaze occurred as city officials and emergency relief workers were busy responding to victims of flash floods elsewhere in Davao City, the largest town in the southern Philippines. The flooding was caused by torrential downpours from Tropical Storm Tembin (Vinta), which swept over surrounding Mindanao island after it made landfall on Thursday night.
The fire also came as security forces in Davao City – President Duterte’s hometown – were on heightened alert to thwart any possible terror attacks by Islamic State-linked extremists, two months after government forces routed them in Marawi, another city in Mindanao.
In September 2016, radical militants who claimed allegiance to Islamic State bombed a night market in the city, killing 15 people, as the president was visiting the area.
He was in Davao when the fire broke out at the NCCC mall. On Saturday, Duterte visited with relatives of the 37 SSI workers, as they were waiting for word about their missing loved ones.