The Philippines has its fair share of infamous tragedies linking to fires throughout its history. From the 1980s till the 2010s, there have been tragedies caused by fire for every decade, which features cases with 70 or more casualties.
These incidents are the infamous MV Doña Paz Tragedy in 1987 with 4,000 casualties, the Ozone Disco Fire in 1996 that killed 162 people, the Manor Hotel blaze in 2001 that caused 75 people's lives, and the Kentex Factory Fire in 2015, which took away the lives of 74 workers.
Though most of these tragedies have a strong following at the time, the terrifying Kentex Factory Fire is a story that also needs to be revisited.
On May 13, 2015, the Kentex Manufacturing Company Building located in Valenzuela City, Metro Manila, was on fire due to welding sparks that ignited the chemicals used to make flip-flops and rubber shoes.
Thick, black smoke covered the building as rubber and chemicals burned. Sadly, the fire started near the factory entrance, which made it impossible for those trapped inside to get out alive. Unable to leave, trapped workers fled to the second floor and attempted to contact their relatives for help.
The blaze spread quickly, and only a few people escaped.
According to official reports, 74 people perished in the fire that took 5 hours to put out by the Fire department. The fire left the building unstable, which delayed the retrieval of the bodies while engineers secured what's left of the Kentex building.
The effects of the blaze were catastrophic, as most of the dead bodies recovered were found on the building's second floor, with most of them burnt badly, exposing their bones and skulls.
As for identifying the burnt bodies, the remains were placed in body bags and brought to the barangay hall of Maysan for processing and identification.
On the other hand, then PNP-OIC Chief Leonardo Espina ordered forensic examiners from the Scene of the Crime Operations (SOCO) to assist in identifying bodies and processing the crime scene in coordination with BFP.
The Valenzuela City police have also extended more police personnel to prevent looting and preserve evidence at the crime scene.
Due to the burnt and unidentifiable faces of some victims, the PNP also conducted the collection of swab samples from the victims' families for DNA matching.
Police also urged families of the victims to submit documents such as dental records and photos showing body marks to help identify their loved ones.
The PNP also announced that a special task force would be established to investigate the tragedy and file charges against individuals responsible for the deadly fire.
As for the owners of Kentex, Terence King Ong, who is also the general manager, sustained severe injuries. His son, Tristan, also died in the fire.
Earlier, they were rumored to have fled the country, which is why Mr. Ong granted an interview to reporters to show that he was also a victim of the fire that took place.
Consequently, survivors of the tragic incident blamed the inhumane working conditions of the Kentex Factory's management.
One of many who died in the unfortunate tragedy was 24-year-old Frederick Yco. He was only working at Kentex for a week before his unexpected death.
According to an article by the guardian that interviewed his mother, Marilyn, she told reporters, "I blame the government because they gave the permit to Kentex to operate."
However, Frederick's mother did not only expressed her grief about the incident but also about how Kentex treated its employees.
As she expressed her son's well-being before he died, she noticed Frederick was always tired because the factory's conditions were not conducive to its workforce.
Employees at Kentex worked for more than 8 hours, or the minimum allotted time for minimum wage workers nationwide. According to Marilyn, the workers at Kentex would work for an extra 2 or 3 hours to meet the company's quota system.
It led the government to initiate several surprise inspections at 42 nearby factories. They found out that almost all of those companies paid their casual workers below the minimum wage and failed to give their workers any benefits.
In an investigation conducted by the Justice for Kentex Workers Alliance, they found out that 65% of its workers were only hired on a casual basis, with contracts only being awarded after 20 years.
Meanwhile, another employee stepped forward and told reporters that "We work for 12 hours – for eight hours we get 202 pesos and then the next four we get 49 pesos for each hour. We have no benefits, but the company deducts our supposed benefits from our wages. We know because of the payslips that there is deduction, but we don't receive those benefits."
Though amid the sentiments and frustrations from the survivors and relatives of the Kentex fire victims, they felt that the government is not doing its best to bring justice to those affected by this horrific tragedy.
In the aftermath of the fatal incident, family members of the victims sought legal actions against the owners of the Kentex Factory and government agencies that allowed their incompetence to push through.
This probe unraveled a lot of inconsistencies. It was reported that the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) did not issue a fire permit to Kentex Factory in 2014 and 2015 due to its lack of initiative of providing the required amounts of fire extinguishers, alarm systems, sprinkler systems, and fire drills.
According to 21-year-old Jobert Canino, a survivor of the Kentex fire, he told reporters, "There were no fire escapes and no storage for the chemicals, no labels on the chemicals."
Meanwhile, government agencies pointed fingers with one another on whether who gets to shoulder the blame.
First, Valenzuela City Mayor Rexlon Gatchalian presented a city ordinance that says it was the fire department's responsibility to notify the relevant authorities that Kentex had not passed an inspection.
Second, the fire department in Valenzuela maintained that they already inspected the factory.
And third, through the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), the national government condemned the Kentex Factory owners. While then-President Benigno Aquino heavily placed the blame on Mayor Rex Gatchalian.
However, it has been pointed out that in September 2014, DOLE provided Kentex a certificate of compliance, which is one of the most crucial requirements for businesses in the country to operate legally.
This debacle infuriated many labor advocates that continuously urge the government to provide the best legislative measures beneficial to Filipino workers.
According to Lito Ustarez, the vice-chairperson of the Kilusang Mayo Uno Workers Union, "the most worrying aspect of this incident is that the government refuses to at the very least learn the lessons from the factory fire and make the necessary changes in government policy concerning occupational health and safety standards,"
The government's refusal to learn from the incident could only mean that there will be more workers who will suffer gravely like the Kentex factory fire victims."
Four days after the incident, the welder, who may have been the cause of the fire, turned himself in to police custody after receiving death threats.
Initially, the survivors blame the welder for starting the fire after his welding equipment produced sparks that ignited the chemicals stored nearby.
According to the Valenzuela City Police Chief Superintendent Roderick Armamento, "during our interview with the welder, he admitted that when he went to work on the roll-up door, sparks flew and accidentally ignited the chemicals stored nearby,"
"And it appears that he was welding in the place where the chemicals and other materials are delivered and stored."
On the other hand, investigators believe that the owners of Kentex were negligent on their parts after reports revealed that sprinklers in the building were nowhere to be seen while the working area was overcrowded.
The workers who died were trapped because the factory's windows were covered with metal grills and wire mesh, making it impossible for them to escape.
According to witnesses, most of the workers that perished were seen shouting for help, and some have managed to send text messages to their loved ones regarding their situation.
Based on the statement of Randy Paghubosan, one of the few lucky people that escaped, "They were screaming for help, holding on to the bars, when we could no longer see their hands, we knew they had died because they were trapped on the second floor."
Consequently, the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) administratively relieved Supt. Mel Jose Lagan and Senior Inspector Ed-groover Oculam, both men, are the heads of the Valenzuela City fire station's section in charge of ensuring the country's Fire Code.
BFP spokesman Renato Marcial said the order was a "normal procedure" as investigators would also be looking into the culpability of the officials concerned.
Later on, the Aquino administration recommended charging city officials with reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicides.
After investigations conducted by the national government, the Office of the Ombudsman has ordered the dismissal of Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian and six other city officials for grave misconduct and gross neglect of duty.
The Ombudsman's office stated that those Valenzuela City officials charged were liable for issuing a business permit to Kentex in 2015 despite its delinquent status.
On the other hand, the fire officials were accused of issuing a fire safety inspection certificate in 2012 and submitting inaccurate inspection reports and notices to comply in 2014.
Investigators found out that the Valenzuela fire department failed to impose sanctions against the management of Kentex as prescribed by the country's Fire Code.
As for Kentex, Terrence King Ong, the operations manager, was also charged with reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicides and multiple physical injuries.
In the latter months of 2015, the families of 57 out of the 74 victims have reportedly agreed to a settlement with the company.
According to the legal team of Kentex, the victims' families have agreed to a total compensation package worth P151,200 each. The amount includes P100,000 in death benefits, P30,000 cash for the identification of the remains of the victims, P10,000 burial assistance, P6,200 for funeral services, and P5,000 travel assistance.
In response, the counsel of the victims' families said that the settlement does not extinguish the criminal liability of Kentex and its officials. He also explained that the settlement was only the civil aspect of the case.
Subsequently, Mayor Rex Gatchalian was able to secure a temporary restraining order (TRO). According to the mayor, "This TRO is important because, without it, there will be a chilling effect on mayors of highly urbanized cities as we all exercise the same procedure imposed by the Department of the Interior and Local Government memorandum circulars."
He also expressed that the case against him and the other city officials will result in "irreparable damage to our economy and generate massive unemployment."
At the time, Mayor Gatchalian sought his re-election bid in his second term as Valenzuela City's mayor. He still won in the local elections overwhelmingly despite the issues he was currently facing.
The Gatchalian family has been reigning over the city of Valenzuela since 2004. Mayor Rex's older brother and incumbent Senator Sherwin Gatchalian was a former three-term mayor from 2004 to 2013 and a one-term first district representative from 2013 to 2016, before becoming a Senator from 2016.
Their other brother, Weslie, is the incumbent congressman of the city's first district for two terms from 2016 until 2022.
As for Mayor Rex, he was a former two-term first district congressman from 2007 to 2013 and the mayor of Valenzuela City from 2013 to 2022, where his third and final term will end.
Indeed, the Gatchalian family clan is one of the most up-and-coming political dynasties in the country, which is why it is highly probable for them to get over significant issues such as the Kentex Factory tragedy.
Unfortunately for the victims' families, it seemed like they were treated as if they were a hurdle to the ambitions of these politicians and greedy businessmen rather than owning up to their obvious and avoidable mistakes.
In October 2016, Mayor Rex Gatchalian posted bail worth 90,000 pesos in his criminal cases filed against him by the Ombudsman's office over the fatal Kentex Factory fire.
The mayor is determined to prove that the criminal cases brought up against him are baseless.
A year later, the mayor's persistence paved off after the Sandiganbayan dismissed the charges filed against him and two other city officials.
According to the ruling, "The records do not show that the accused acted with manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence. The accused merely followed the existing memorandum circulars and ordinances on the streamlined procedure for the issuance of business permits,"
The decision on Mayor Gatchalian's case also stated that the BFP is primarily responsible for implementing the fire safety inspection certificate and is obligated to inform LGUs of the compliance or any violation of establishments.
In 2020, calls for justice took a hit for the second time when the Sandiganbayan Second Division acquitted the criminal charges filed against the general manager of Kentex and three BFP officials.
Terrence King Ong, the general manager of Kentex, BFP-Valenzuela City fire marshal Mel Jose Lagan, senior fire inspector Edgrover Oculam, and senior fire officer Rolando Avendan were acquitted of violating Section 3 (e) of Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
All four men were also acquitted of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicides and multiple physical injuries under Article 365 of the Revised Penal Code.
According to the Sandiganbayan's decision, "Upon examination of the evidence of the prosecution and the defense, the court finds that the prosecution failed to prove the guilt of the accused with moral certainty,
The court commiserates with the families of the victims on that fateful incident, but it has to yield to the constitutional right of the accused to be presumed innocent,"
Furthermore, the Sandiganbayan also maintained their decision based on the Interagency Anti-Arson Task Force's findings, which probed the incident.
According to the investigation, the fire's proximate cause was not the supposed negligence of city hall and BFP officials, but rather the "molten slags from welding rods that came into contact with Supercell Blowing Agents," a combustible material.
In short, despite Kentex lacking the requirement of having a fire safety inspection certificate, Sandiganbayan still ruled in favor of the accused because the fire was deemed an unfortunate accident.
The Kentex Factory Fire is considered to be the third-worst fire incident in the Philippines. The victims were found gripping through burnt window grills in a hopeless attempt to get out. Many of them died embracing each other.
These workers had to take less than they should be earning to put food on their tables, yet justice did not support them after being burnt alive due to the greedy, incompetent, and negligent acts of their employers and government officials.
Seventy-four people have died in this horrific incident, and no one was held liable.
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