Call center staff among 37 killed in Philippines mall fire

AFP
At least 37 people, including call center staff from an American firm, are believed to have perished in a fire that tore through a shopping mall in the Philippine city of Davao.
AFP

At least 37 people, including call center staff from an American firm, are believed to have perished in a fire that tore through a shopping mall in the southern Philippine city of Davao, local authorities said yesterday.

President Rodrigo Duterte, himself a Davao native, visited distraught relatives outside the burning building overnight but told them there was “zero” chance their loved ones had survived.

Firemen found one body as the blaze was finally extinguished yesterday, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter, told reporters.

Firemen concluded that all those trapped in the building are dead, she said, adding, “They assessed that no one would survive in that heat and with that thick, black smoke.”

The deadly fire adds fresh misery for the mainly Catholic Philippines at Christmas as the death toll from a tropical storm that hit the south of the country last Friday crossed 200 and with tens of thousands displaced by severe flooding and landslides.

The blaze started at the four-storey NCCC Mall on Saturday morning, sending thick plumes of black smoke billowing into the sky over Davao.

With low wages but strong English language skills, the Philippines is a popular destination for international companies to set up customer call centers.

The building’s top floor housed a 24-hour call center for the US-based market research company SSI.

Jimmy Quimsing, a retired seaman, was one of the relatives desperately waiting for news. His 25-year-old son Jim Benedict worked at the call center and had not been in contact since the fire broke out.

Quimsing said he spoke to President Duterte and had been told to prepare for the worst.

“He told us ... no one would survive under these circumstances,” he said.

Paolo Duterte, the president’s son and the vice mayor of Davao, also wrote on Facebook that fire officials had told him there was “zero” chance of anyone trapped surviving the blaze.

In a statement on its local Facebook page, SSI said it would set up a “command center” for the relatives of those missing. “Please continue to pray for everyone’s safety,” it added.

Fire marshal Honeyfritz Alagano said the blaze may have started by a spark on the third floor of the mall, which had a furniture section.

“One of our firemen here has a kid who is (a call center) agent there. He told us some of them went to collect their stuff at their lockers and were trapped,” Alagano said. “The mall is an enclosed space with no ventilation. When our firemen tried to enter they were pushed back by smoke and fire.”

Mayor Duterte said she told the fire fighters to retrieve all the dead, stressing, “You do not stop until you find 37.”

She also said the circumstances surrounding the fire would be investigated but added that it was too early to say who was at fault.

Deadly blazes occur regularly in the Philippines, particularly in slum areas where there are virtually no fire safety standards. 

“It’s possible that while they were working, they did not immediately notice the fire spreading,” Davao police officer Ralph Canoy said.


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