DAVAO CITY – As the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) finally found 36 charred bodies believed to be among the 37 missing call center agents on the fourth floor of the New City Commercial Center (NCCC) mall hit by fire last weekend, the city’s fire marshall explained in detail why they could not save the 37 employees trapped there.
The fatalities from Survey Sampling International (SSI) were mostly found at the fourth-floor stairwell of the burnt mall.
The bodies are being processed by the Scene of the Crime Operation (SOCO) to identify the victims before they are turned over to the respective families.
BFP 11 Regional Director Wilberto Rico Neil Kwan Tiu has apologized to the families of the victims for not commanding and forcibly directing fire rescue teams to penetrate the building, then already at 500 to 700 degree Celsius temperature inside.
He also apologized for not directing fire rescue teams to crawl even if most parts of the burning building have caved in and collapsed; and, for not commanding responders to penetrate the burning mall where heavy gases and thick smoke hang.
“In my heart, really from us (fire responders) my deepest apology for not able to save them,” Tiu said before the families, relatives, survivors, and city officials led by Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio after Mass was held near the entrance of the NCCC Mall along Ma-a road on Monday.
“Our deepest apology for not (being) able to save them because of the situation,” Tiu said after detailing the search operation.
STAIRWELL, NOT LOCKER ROOM
Tiu, who personally took charge of the ground operation, said the search and rescue teams found the bodies at the stairwell leading to SSI, just a few steps of the fourth floor lobby and not the SSI locker room or the restroom as earlier related by some survivors and text messages of trapped call center agents to the families. Some were found in the lobby near the area where SSI entertains clients.
The SSI occupied the whole fourth floor of the NCCC mall.
When Tiu announced 36 bodies were found, the families of the victims broke down.
Tiu detailed the operations with the aim of saving lives.
He said the fire responders barely rested after the rescue operations for families affected by flood the previous night on December 22. Responders were called for duty to respond to NCCC fire.
After receiving information that persons were trapped inside the SSI restroom and locker room, some responders shifted from suppressing the fire to rescue operations, Tiu said.
He said all assets of the BFP, including those from the neighboring cities and provinces, helped out. All in all, he said there were 31 fire trucks.
Responders focused on the SSI restroom but only one body was found on Sunday afternoon.
They pursued operations Monday and had to make more holes for ventilation because of toxic gases inside.
Tiu said rescue teams tried but, every time they move forward they were met with so much heat and thick smoke, “more than what people see escaping from the walls of the mall.
The responders had to back off again every time they move forward. “We cannot sustain the heat and we have to make a strategy again,” he said. The high temperature, he said, could melt the equipment and gears of the rescue teams.
Tiu said a group of unified responders utilized all available resources and followed protocols to ensure the safety of the responders.
He said he did not discount every information given to the BFP. It encouraged them to go to the building despite heated gases and thick smoke. He explained that carpets, plastics produce hydrogen cyanide.
“Responders have nothing in mind but to save the victims,” he stressed.
After finding one body inside the restroom, Tiu said responders continued the search and went deeper, passing through alleys of SSI that had already caved in. “And we found 36 lifeless bodies,” Tiu said.
Tiu also offered sympathies to the families on behalf of the responders.
After the mass, families, relatives, friends, survivors, Duterte-Carpio, and city officials lighted candles and offered flowers in front of the NCCC mall – Ma-a road side.
Duterte-Carpio said there would be an investigation – one by the BFP for its own action and two, a third party investigator that would be recommended by the families of the victims but expenses would be shouldered by the city government.
Tiu said the investigation would be done by the national office considering the number of fatalities and the cost of damage.
Tiu added that BFP has yet to determine the cause of the fire. The investigation is still ongoing.
BFP 11 will provide all information and reports to the BFP national headquarters for its own investigation.
He, however, said BFP is recommending the total demolition of the mall.
Asked if NCCC mall followed safety rules, Tiu said mall owners should know all the protocol since they are the founders of Fil-Chinese firefight volunteers. In the past there was even a fire station inside the mall’s premises, he said.
If there are lessons learned, Tiu said it is time for BFP to align with present technology.
He said the BFP still lacks some assets like high ladders and equipment to make holes in buildings walls. The last time the agency got new assets was during the Ramos administration.
He is positive that the administration of the President Rodrigo Duterte knows the BFP’s needs. “The President is very diligent,” he added.
In the meantime, the mayor appealed for patience and calm. “Please allow our authorities to do their job. Buhaton tanan sistema to reunite with your relatives (All procedures will be done to reunite with your relatives),” Duterte-Carpio appealed.
The mayor said the city would extend assistance to the families of the victims. The assistance would be sourced from the city’s peace and order fund.