MANILA (UPDATED) – A total of 58 people were confirmed killed while 13 more remain missing in the massive fire that razed a slippers factory in Valenzuela City on Wednesday.
In a press briefing, Mayor Rex Gatchalian said as of 11:45 a.m. today, 55 bodies have been retrieved from the factory located in Barangay Ugong. This is on top of the three bodies retrieved on Wednesday.
But the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) said past noon that 72 bodies have already been recovered from the building.
Gatchalian earlier told radio DZMM identifying the victims is now impossible, as most of the remains are already beyond recognition.
The fire at the two-storey factory building of Kentex Manufacturing Inc., which erupted before noon Wednesday, started after welding equipment produced sparks and ignited chemicals stored nearby.
Gatchalian said it was too early to point fingers.
"An investigation is ongoing right now. It will be unfair to assign liability at this point. We are looking at all angles. We will see to it that those who are liable will be punished," Gatchalian told AFP.
The first three remains to be retrieved belong to factory secretaries Leah Ballesteros and Josie Tee, and the son of factory owner, Tristan Ong.
Gatchalian said firefighters have only started to access the building Thursday morning, and there are concerns that the building might collapse after its structural integrity was affected by the blaze.
He said some survivors at the first floor of the factory managed to get out the compound through the backdoor. However, those at the second floor were not as lucky.
Janet Victoriano, who was near the front door when the blaze started, recounted sheer panic.
"Everyone scampered to try and find their way out," she told dzMM.
Victoriano signaled lax fire safety standards may have contributed to the high death toll.
"I had never been involved in a fire drill ever," said Victoriano, who had worked at the factory for five years.
DNA MATCHING EYED
Gatchalian said the city government is now extending help to the victims' families. A social help desk has also been set up to assist the grieving families.
Families looking for their loved ones are instructed to go to the Maysan barangay hall, where the retrieved bodies were brought for identification.
City officials said since most of the retrieved bodies are already beyond recognition, DNA samples will be taken from them. The matching will be done by comparing the DNA sample taken from the remains and those taken from the immediate relatives.
Authorities said the bodies may be buried after the retrieval of the DNA sample, but these can be exhumed at a later time.
'NO ONE ESCAPED'
A distraught factory worker Nedy Neverio, 35, joined other relatives gathered outside the factory, anxiously awaiting word of her elder sister Nora Verenzuela, 42, and two nephews.
"Someone told us no one escaped from the area where she was assigned" to pack flip-flops into bags, Neverio told AFP.
"My sister's workplace was near the chemicals. She was not able to get out because the flames had spread," Neverio added.
Injured survivor Emma Santa Agata told ABS-CBN television many of her fellow workers were trapped at their work stations on the second floor.
"My boss and I were running out when we were blocked by fire and smoke," Santa Agata said.
"There was a sudden explosion and he got hit on the arm," said the woman, whose hair was singed according to the network.
District fire marshal Senior Superintendent Rico Kwantiu said they were still waiting for the arrival of powerful cutting tools to slice through fallen steel trusses before they could remove the bodies and properly count them.
The company, Kentex Manufacturing, had made flip-flop slippers for the local market, using brand names like "Havana", company employees said.
Huge and sometimes deadly fires at sprawling slums as well as factories are a common occurrence in the Philippine capital, where fire safety regulations are sometimes willfully disregarded.
In one of Manila's deadliest-ever fires, 162 people were killed and 94 others injured at a disco in 1996.
Last year, 18 years after the blaze, two shareholders of the club and seven city building safety inspectors were sentenced to prison terms of up to 10 years for allowing the nightclub to operate without adequate safety precautions. – with reports from Dennis Datu and Robert Mano, dzMM; Agence France-Presse