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Ozone owners get off lightly

- Matthew Estabillo, Cecille Suerte Felipe -
Two businessmen were meted a four-year prison term yesterday and fined more than P25 million each for the Ozone Disco fire that killed 162 people and injured at least 95 others five years ago in Quezon City.

Hermilo Ocampo and Ramon Ng were convicted of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide and multiple serious injuries. They were president and treasurer, respectively, of Westwood Entertainment, the company that operated Ozone.

Relatives of many of the victims were outraged by the light prison term and described the sentence as "cheap justice." Families of the dead will each get an indemnity of P150,000. Those injured will get P100,000 each.

Judge Ofelia Marquez, in a 125-page decision read in open court, said Ocampo and Ng did not provide fire exits and sprinklers inside the disco house off Boy Scout Rotonda along Timog and Morato avenues, and that the fire extinguishers they placed were defective.

She also noted that the popular disco had been approved for use by only 35 people, but was packed with about 350 customers and 40 employees when the fire broke out on March 18, 1996.

Many of those who were burned to death were young people and new graduates celebrating the end of the school year.

Marquez cleared of cri-minal liability four others: Ocampo’s wife Raquel, Alfredo Chua, Rosita Ku, and her son Sonny Ku who were also linked to the fire.

"They were merely stockholders/directors of the firm and had no direct supervision/participation in the day-to-day affairs of the establishment," she said.

The judge, however, ruled that all six share in paying P150,000 to the relatives of every one who died and P100,000 to each of the injured.

According to Marquez, Ocampo was the one supervising Ozone from 1991 to the night of the fire. "He should have noticed architectural defects and fire fighting deficiencies of the club, which catered to the public in general," she said in her verdict.

Despite the hundreds of people inside it, Ozone only had a lone door which swung inward. The door, Marquez pointed out, was too small and did not meet the standard set by the country’s building laws.

"Nothing but ordinary foresight could have shown them (owners) that the place was a fire trap, it being located in the interior of a sprawling building," Marquez said.

Survivors of the tragedy said they saw a spark inside the disc jockey’s booth shortly after midnight of March 18. They initially thought it to be part of the disco’s special effects. However, they panicked when smoke and the scent of burning started to fill the place.

The revelers then raced to the door, but were trapped when security guards locked them from the outside, thinking that a riot was taking place. Michaela Reyes, an Ozone employee, said the locking was a "standard order" to the guards by the management.

The victims were charred so badly that their families had to sort through jewelry, makeup kits and shoes in hopes of identifying the bodies. The extreme heat even fused some bodies together.

The fire was the worst in the country and the second worst nightclub blaze worldwide, next only to the one that killed 164 in Kentucky, USA in 1977.
‘Cheap justice’
Relatives of the victims, many carrying pictures of those who died, applauded when the guilty verdict was read. But many expressed outrage upon hearing that those convicted would only be jailed for four years.

"Cheap justice," said the mother of Jennifer Advincula, a 22-year-old nursing student killed in the fire while celebrating her graduation. "The decision only refreshed the pain in my heart."

Boyet Santos, president of the Justice for Ozone Victims (JOV) foundation, said families of the victims will have a slim chance receiving even a single centavo for the tragedy.

Santos, whose cousin was one of those killed in the blaze, said the Ozone owners, particularly Ocampo and Ng, have already transferred their personal wealth to their relatives.

"How can they pay us when they have already disposed of the properties under their name to their immediate relatives?" he asked.

He added that while any property transfers made by the disco owners may have been done in bad faith, such is still considered legal because prosecutors failed to freeze the owners’ assets when the case was just starting.

Santos said Ocampo used to own an entire subdivision in Cabanatuan City, but he had transferred its ownership to a relative during preliminary investigation on the case. He added that Ocampo also had residential lots in San Juan.

"They (properties) should have gone to the victims’ relatives, but they are now with a different owner. It is really unfortunate how these people resort to such immoral tactics," he lamented.

Rosario Villanueva, whose son Ritchie perished in the disco inferno, said she was not content with either the four-year jail term or the fine.

"My son was a bright student. Even if they give us millions of pesos, it can never bring my son back. Justice has not yet been served," she said.

Veronica Montenegro was reduced to tears as she recalled her son Cyd and his many goals in life.

"My son Cyd wanted to be everything. At 20, he was already a stage actor and a music composer. I don’t care about the money, but I want to feel that justice has been served," she said. "The wounds haven’t healed even after the decision. And I doubt if they ever will."

Another mother, Melba Galang, turned hysterical outside the courtroom after the reading of the verdict. She hurled insults at those convicted and their lawyers.

"How would they like if I gave them money and burn their bodies to the ground?" she asked media men afterwards. "It doesn’t sound pleasant at all, does it?"

The JOV still has a graft case pending in the Sandiganbayan against Quezon City officials. Santos said the group is confident of a conviction because the same evidence was presented.

ALFREDO CHUA BOY SCOUT ROTONDA FIRE MARQUEZ OCAMPO OCAMPO AND NG QUEZON CITY
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