Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

PHILIPPINES: Fire Leaves 150 Dead; Building Codes Under Scrutiny

Johanna Son

MANILA, Mar 19 1996 (IPS) - A midnight fire that ravaged a discotheque in the Philippine capital leaving an estimated 150 dead, is again raising questions about the lack of safety standards accompanying the fast-paced construction now taking place across Asia.

More than 200 students were reported to have been crammed into the popular disco in Manila’s Quezon City area, when the blaze started just after 1600 GMT Monday, keeping firefighters busy into the early hours of Tuesday.

Firemen on the scene said the disco did not have a single emergency exit, forcing the young party-goers to all rush for the single door of entry and exit. Most of those that escaped were admitted to hospitals for treatment to burns.

Many of the students, who were celebrating the end of the school- term had not told their parents of their whereabouts, and this was one of the reasons why less than half of the charred bodies had still not been identified up to 12 hours after the blaze.

At the scene Tuesday, President Fidel Ramos told reporters a panel would be set up to investigate the cause of the fire and determine who, if anybody, should be held responsible.

“You (reporters) broadcast that…that the owners are being invited for questioning and that if any of them refuse, they will be arrested. This is a matter of great public interest,” said Ramos.

“The first thing is to pinpoint responsibility and for investigators to look into building and fire safety requirements under the law. We must make sure there is no recurrence of this,” Ramos added.

Speculation on the cause of the fire centres around faulty electrical wiring. The disc jockey on duty Mervyn Reyes was quoted saying that he first noticed flames from wires above him.

This is not the first time in recent months that a fire has caused widespread damage and death in South-east Asia, where speed rather than care is the overriding factor as businessmen compete for space in the region’s growing market.

In the past seven months, more than eight department store buildings in Bangkok were gutted by fire.

In the Thai capital, casualties have been minimal, largely because the blazes occurred at night, but financial losses have been tremendous — 160 million dollars in damages in 1995.

And urban development experts there have warned that a day-time fire in the Bangkok district could result in major loss of life.

In a previous IPS interview, Peter Hartong, founder of Building Diagnostics Asia, noted that there were “serious design flaws in most shopping malls and department stores” in Thailand.

“If a fire breaks out during business hours, it will be a big disaster,” said Hartong, who is a member of a government committee drawing up a new fire safety code for Bangkok.

In Manila, as in Bangkok, there are building codes in place, but analysts say these are in some cases outdated, in others ignored. Yet approval is nonetheless given for construction, suggesting either corruption or lack of vigilance on the part of inspecting building engineers.

“It shows the laxness…and it takes a tragedy like this for us to wake up,” said Senator Orly Mercado.

Alfredo Macapugay, city engineer for Quezon City, told reporters that to his knowledge owners of the Ozone discotheque had been issued fire and building safety permits, following an inspection carried out by a private engineering firm which he did not name.

Investigators will determine if there is a case to answer for “criminal liability or negligence” on the part of the owners, said Quezon City Mayor Ismael Mathay. In a Press release, he identified the owners as Westwood Entertainment Company.

Tuesday’s fire was the deadliest in the post World War II history of the Philippines. Official records show that before this one, the worst in terms of casualties was in November, 1977 when 47 people perished in a blaze that gutted a Manila hotel.

More recently, in 1985, fire swept through a movie house in the Albay province east of Manila, leaving 41 bodies in its wake.

Besides the reported lack of emergency exits, fire authorities say that the death toll from Tuesday’s fire was alarmingly high because the disco had a capacity for less than 100 patrons.

The students, most aged between 15 and 20, had packed into the nightspot, to try to take advantage of a special half-price offer on drinks. As many as 300 patrons are estimated to have passed in and out of the disco’s doors before the fire had started.

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