DAVAO CITY—The Justice Department ordered a criminal investigation Monday into a shopping mall fire that killed 37 people, including call center staff from an American firm.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre announced the inquiry as firemen prepared to enter what remained of the New City Commercial Center mall in the Davao City, where they retrieved the bodies of 36 who perished in Saturday’s blaze. One body was recovered earlier in a fourth floor comfort room.
The fire compounded the Christmas misery in the south, where tens of thousands were also displaced by floods and landslides from a storm that also killed more than 200 others on Friday.
“The loss of lives and the resulting damage… underscore the need to determine if someone is at fault and should be held criminally liable,” Aguirre said in a statement.
“By punishing those responsible, we can set an example to others so that, hopefully, there will be no repetition of those tragedies,” he added.
Deadly blazes occur regularly, particularly in slum areas where there are virtually no fire safety standards.
Local authorities on Sunday said no-one trapped in the fire would have survived.
The Davao fire marshal had on Sunday described the shopping mall as “an enclosed space with no ventilation,” though the authorities said they had yet to determine the cause of the blaze.
The building’s administrators on Sunday denied allegations from survivors that there were inadequate emergency fire exits and that some of them were locked.
“There is no truth to that allegation. In fact as per accounts of those who got out, they were able get out through the fire exit,” Thea Padua, the mall’s public relations officer, said.
Some relatives of those missing criticized rescuers for what they felt was the slow pace of recovery efforts.
“They seem so relaxed,” said Jolita Basalan, weeping as she waited for news of her missing 29-year-old son Jonas who worked at the call center.
“They are not pained because they don’t have a child there. They told us to come here but no one is moving,” she said.
But authorities said that firemen needed to inspect the structural integrity of the burnt-out building before venturing inside its gutted remains.
Aguirre said he has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct a parallel investigation into the fire to determine possible criminal liabilities in the mall fire.
“We want the NBI to be involved with its own probe. Their findings will enable us to make those responsible fully accountable before our courts via the criminal cases that will be filed,” Aguirre said in a statement.
Initial reports said the blaze started at the four-story mall at around 9:30 a.m. on Saturday.
Built in 2003 by the Lim family, the NCCC Mall is one of the city’s bigger establishments.
SSI offered its condolences to the families of the victims and said it would help support funeral arrangements.
“It is with deep sadness that we confirm that 37 Research Now SSI employees were lost in the fire that struck the NCCC mall in Davao City, Philippines, where the company employs 500 in its local call center operation,” the company said.
Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III on Monday asked the Bureau of Fire Protection to investigate thoroughly the cause of the blaze that killed 37 people inside the mall.
“I want to know why they were trapped, and if there is anything we could have done to avoid this. I look forward to the report of BFP and see if we need to update our fire safety regulations to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again,” Pimentel said.
Pimentel, a party-mate of former Davao City mayor and now President Rodrigo Duterte, also extended his condolences to the families of the victims trapped at the New City Commercial Center, one of the biggest malls in the city,
On Saturday night, President Duterte visited the mall and talked to relatives of the 37 people trapped inside.
The Davao fire was second only to the 2015 blaze at the Kentex footwear factory in Valenzuela City that killed 42 workers. The blaze at Kentex, which started when sparks from a welder repairing a metal gate ignited nearby chemicals, highlighted the unsafe working conditions for many workers.
Survivors of that blaze blamed barred windows and other sweatshop conditions for trapping people inside the factory.
In the deadliest fire in in recent times, 162 people were killed in a huge blaze that gutted the Ozone disco in 1996. With F. Pearl Gajunera and AFP