MANILA (UPDATED) – A total of 72 people were confirmed killed in the massive fire that razed a slippers factory in Valenzuela City Wednesday.
Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas told reporters that 72 bodies have been retrieved from the factory located in Barangay Ugong.
The city mayor, Rex Gatchalian, also confirmed the total number of fatalities to news agency Agence France-Presse. His spokesman, however, said it remained unclear if there were others still missing.
The fire at the two-storey factory building of Kentex Manufacturing Inc., which erupted before noon Wednesday, started after a welding equipment allegedly produced sparks and ignited chemicals stored nearby.
Roxas said details surrounding the incident remain raw at this point, but he has tasked agencies under his department to conduct a thorough investigation that will determine why the 72 individuals were trapped inside the factory.
''This is extraordinary. Seventy two died. Why were 69 of the 72 fatalities in the second floor? Why were they trapped there?" Roxas said.
Gatchalian earlier said the fatalities include relatives of the owners of the factory.
The fatalities identified so far are Tristan Ong, Heidi Pang, and factory secretaries Leah Ballesteros and Josie Tee.
Gatchalian earlier told radio dzMM that identifying the victims is now impossible, as most of the remains are already beyond recognition.
He also promised justice for the grieving relatives of the victims, but he said it was too early to point fingers at this point.
"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.
Philippine National Police (PNP) Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina also said that someone will have to be held accountable for the deaths.
''There were deaths so certainly there will be charges. We are now determining what exactly happened so we would be able to file the necessary charges,'' Espina said.
Gatchalian said some survivors at the first floor of the factory managed to get of the compound through the backdoor. However, those at the second floor were not as lucky.
Superintendent Mel Jose Lagan, the Valenzuela City Fire Marshal told reporters that the building had sufficient exit points and they are now reviewing why the victims failed to get out of the burning factory.
He said they are also looking at a possible violation of the building's occupancy limit.
Local police are now gathering statements from the fire survivors.
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.
A distraught factory worker Nedy Neverio, 35, joined other relatives gathered outside the factory on Wednesday, 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.
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 samples taken from the remains and those taken from the immediate relatives of the victims.
Authorities said the bodies may be buried after the retrieval of the DNA sample, but these can be exhumed at a later time.
Emanuel Lomibao Aranas of the Philippine National Police Crime Laboratory said the victims' items such as clothes and personal belongings will also help in the identification of the bodies.
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