36 trapped employees just a few steps from stairs leading out

JUST a few steps from where their bodies were scattered was the stairs at the call center lobby where the other workers passed through to escape. But they did not make it.

Thus, families of the call center agents of Survey Sampling International (SSI), a Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) company that has its office at the uppermost floor of NCCC Mall of Davao, broke down in tears upon being told that 36 bodies were recovered, not one survived.

“[It was] around 11 a.m. (December 25, 2017) when we tried to go deeper, we cannot anymore pass the alleys of SSI so we tried another way and we found them unfortunately... lifeless. We found them in the place where a few meters is already stairs, we found them at the place where a few meters is already the escalator and that is their alleys and their lobbies where they are entertaining would be applicants to join the SSI,” Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP 11) regional director Fire Senior Superintendent Wilberto Rico Niel A. Kwan Tiu said after the mass.

Kwan Tiu is also the ground commander of the fire incident.

“I personally counted them before I gave the information to the mayor,” he said.

The families wept in chorus after they were given the update.

SSI in its statement released last December 25, said it employs 500 in its local call center operation working in shifts.

“This terrible tragedy has left us with heavy hearts.

We offer our condolences and prayers to the families and loved ones of the victims,” said Gary S. Laben, CEO of Research Now SSI.

“Words cannot express how saddened we are. We are grateful for the courageous response of the first responders and others who rushed to the scene.”

The company has arranged for counseling for its employees.

In addition, it is helping to support funeral arrangements, and will create a fund for contributions to provide further assistance to the families of those who were lost.

Details about the fund will be made available soon.


Late Tuesday afternoon, December 26, it was revealed that 14 of the 37 remains have already been identified from the pieces of personal belongings found on the bodies like identification cards and personal accoutrements, and dental records.

The 14 identified fatalities were: Jim Benedict Quimsing, Joyne Pabelonia, Kurtchin Angela Bangoy, Mary Louielyn Bongcayao, Christen Joy Garzon, Jonas Basalan, Rosyl Montanez, Christine Joy Ferraren, Ivan Roble, Jesseca Samontina, Elyn Joy Yorsua, Venus Joy Kimpo, and Jimboy Limosnero, in addition to Jeffrey Sismar who was the first retrieved and identified last December 24, 2017.

Firefighter's agony

Kwan Tiu said that the night before the fire, the firefighters were involved in the rescue operations for the thousands of flashflood victims of Tropical Storm Vinta. They never imagined that they will be made to render service again for more than 24 hours with barely enough rest as the fire alarm for the NCCC fire was raised.

“Before the declarations for them to go back to their respective fire stations, another call on duty informing them to immediately report to NCCC mall because of the fire incident,” BFP-Davao chief said.

At the scene, they shifted their operation from fire suppression to search and rescue operation. The firefighters did everything to save the employees, boring holes, used ladders in order to penetrate the locations, as mentioned by some of the workers who were able to exit as the firefighters tried to gain entry.

“A group of people are in the rest room, near the elevator. So the first area that firefighters could possibly reach is near the elevator near the exit ways, near stairways and we tried to as I said make holes for us to be able to penetrate and have this for firefighters to be able to go inside,” he said.

The heat was too much though, it was an inferno inside, they were forced to retreat.

Temperatures were between 500 to 700 degree Celsius, enough to melt equipment and gears. The black smoke seeping out of the rooftops that is visible to the passerby was completely different to the inferno inside.

“We really tried, we did our best to really penetrate. Every time we moved forward there is that time that we need to go back again because we cannot anymore sustain the heat but as I have said we never stopped we never took a rest,” he explained.

Having seen how the fire raged inside, however, by Saturday evening, they saw “zero chance of survival” for the trapped victims to come out alive. Sunday morning, December 24, the first body of the 37 reported missing was recovered by authorities inside a comfort room where their fellow employees said all others hid.

The body was later identified by forensic experts as Jeffrey Sismar.

His name went viral on social media after his brother posted that his brother was alive along with all other trapped victims.

The fire lasted for about 33 hours before it was declared fire out at 5:15 p.m. of December 24.

On Christmas morning, their operation started anew at 9 a.m. assessing the situation on the ground, the integrity and stability of the building to ensure the safety of the responders for there is a possibility that vulnerable structures from the top might fall down on investigators below.

It was only after several hours when they found the bodies, burnt beyond recognition. The bodies were in different positions, some supine, some facing down, all in one area.

Kwan Tiu can only surmised that fire must have blocked their exit way and that they were killed by the toxic fumes. First is carbon monoxide, the lethal gas from the black fumes that can kills a person in minutes. Then the hydrogen cyanide from burned plastics.

One thing the families can take comfort from, the high probability that the victims did not suffer the agony of being burnt as the toxic gases have most likely rendered them unconscious faster than the fire could get at them.

“Hydrogen cyanide is highly toxic to the person. Once inhaled a hydrogen cyanide plus a carbon monoxide, it’s just a matter of minutes they will become unconscious,” he said.

Kwan Tiu repeatedly apologized to the families and friends of the victims as they were not able to save them from the massive fire because of the difficult situation.

He continued, “My only failure in this situation is I failed to command and forcibly direct them to penetrate inside with the 500 to 700 degree Celsius that is enough to melt our turnouts, to melt our gears, to melt our mask. I failed to again command and forcibly direct them to crawl on a floor that most of the parts have already collapsed.”

The BFP chief said that the case will be endorsed to their national headquarters who will investigate the fire incident considering the amount of damage and the number of casualties incurred in the fire incident.

They will only assist in providing the needed documents and information but the lead agency will be the team coming from Manila. But he said that the investigation had already started since the fire erupted.

Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio in confirming the recovery of the 36 other bodies, requested the cooperation of the families to expedite the processing of the bodies.

“May I request everybody to just allow the Bureau of Fire Protection the PNP (Philippine National Police) and SOCO (Scene of the Crime Operatives) to process the bodies of your relatives because some could hardly be identified. I saw the situation up there,” Duterte-Carpio said.

She seconded the information provided by Kwan Tiu that they were not found in the locker room or restroom but in the lobby.

“Lakaw lang kag kaduha katong stairs panaog. Naa sila didto tanan. Naa didto sila...36,” she said.

She further said that after the remains are identified through DNA testing, relatives will be the ones to decide where they want the wake to be.

“Nangayo ko sa inyong patience and I would like to advise you to be calm please allow our authorities to their job para mahan-ay ug matarong nato para mapaspas na ta. I emphasize to them nga buhaton nila tanan ang sistema ug pamaagi para mapaspas and mareunite mo sainyuhang paryente (Be calm so we can do everything we need to do quickly. I have told authorities to do everything as fast as possible so the family can get their loved ones),” she said.

The mayor added, “In behalf of the city government of Davao and our family, we condole with you and I would like to express our sympathies to the families of the victims. We have now 37 recovered missing persons.”

Justice for the victims

On Monday evening, President Rodrigo Duterte arrived at Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC) at the holding area of the bereaved families at the ground floor of JICA building. However, media were not allowed to enter.

At around 11:30p.m., the media were allowed to cover the unloading of the cadavers of the victims that started to arrive. They were transported by a two military truck of the Task Force Davao in three batches.

The charred bodies were enclosed in zippered body bags with printed logo of the Department of Health (DOH). These were carefully unloaded by the elements of the Regional Crime Laboratory Office (RCLO) Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) team to the buffer room of the Southern Philippines Medical Center where the bodies will be held while awaiting identification.

After his dialogue with the families, the President entered the buffer room, where he was made to wear a mask before going inside. He granted media an interview as he exited, sharing what they have talked with the families.

“What I assured them is let the truth will come out, yan naman ang gusto nila yong totoo lang kung ano ang nangyari for as long as the compensation and expenses are answered. Pero ako nag commit na ako na government is willing to [help],” Duterte said.

When asked about the two other names listed as missing, he said that there is no confirmation yet on the reports.

“Hindi pa confirmed yan. Walang confirmation. Hindi namin alam kung saan. All accounted na sila doon. The number are correct already in as far as [SSI is concern],” he added. “That’s speculation at this time what’s validated is this.”

In an interview with BFP Fire Superintendent Honey Fritz Alagano, fire marshal of Davao City Fire District yesterday, she said that on their list, there were only 37 and there is no longer a search and retrieval operation conducted as of December 26.

“Yong dalawa hindi confirmed. That is based on the mayor’s office. During the dialogue, it is only 37,” she said.

The 39 list was based on the first day account. She couldn’t also provide information whoever reported the two individuals who were missing. They were reportedly a NCCC regular employee named Melvin Gaa and another SSI employee named Jimboy Limosnero.

Identification process

RCLO Medico Legal Officer Police Chief Inspector Dr. Nolan Genova in an interview said that they have already done with the tagging of the charred that they could hardly identify.

“Naka-retrieve kami ng 37 cadavers, ang gagawin namin is ipa-process, pipicturan ang secondary identifiers like alahas, wedding rings, ID or clothing na natitira. Pipicturan yon tapos ipiprint tapos ipapakita sa mga relatives,” he said.

He said that some of the bodies they recovered has still their ID’s on.

“Lahat sila charred na, lahat sila sunog na sunog beyond recognition. Meron pang iba putol kasi sa init yon talagang mag ca-crack ang bones. Ang iba crack na din yong skull dahil sa init,” he cited.

They will also get Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) samples from each body to be matched with relatives to correctly determine their identities.
“Doon sa walang makuhang secondary identifiers, yong primary which is yong finger print, ngipin and DNA,” he said.

He added that DNA result will come out the shortest is 30 days depending on the volume and the tissues to be submitted at the national headquarters.

“Paghindi pa na-identify ilalagay muna sa temporary tapos may body number para paglabas nga result ng DNA doon pa lang ma-identify. Mag-aantay talaga,” he said. (SunStar Davao)
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