Christmas Day fire kills 25 in Ormoc

- Roberto Dejon () - December 27, 2006 - 12:00am
ORMOC CITY – The folly of a curious young boy left 25 people dead and several others injured after he accidentally lit a firecracker inside a jampacked department store in this city on Christmas Day, local fire investigators said yesterday.

Firefighters said many charred bodies were recovered inside the store’s toilet, where the victims had sought refuge during the seven-hour fire.

The fire struck the Unitop General Merchandising Store, allegedly caused by a "piccolo," a type of firecracker that can be ignited simply by rubbing it against any rough surface.

Investigators led by Senior Fire Officer II Virgilio Betancor said a witness saw the boy hurl the piccolo at a pile of firecrackers that were sold inside the store, located on Real Street.

Betancor said an eyewitness saw the young boy asking the cashier how to light the firecracker.

When the cashier demonstrated how to light the firecracker, she did not know the young boy was already holding one and was about to light it himself.

When the boy saw to his horror that the firecracker was about to explode in his hand, he threw it on a pile of firecrackers being sold inside the store.

On the other hand, police investigators led by Senior Inspector Reynaldo Gabor said they are also looking into reports that the blaze was caused by a battery-operated "tracer bullet toy gun" fired by the boy that hit the pile of firecrackers inside the store.

Gabor also said the fire was apparently triggered by firecrackers that were displayed near highly flammable Christmas decorations inside the store, causing the inferno that left 25 dead, including a pregnant mother and her four-year-old son.

The Office of Civil Defense (OCD) in Manila added the casualties included two babies.

Ormoc City police chief Senior Superintendent Manuel Cubillo said the fire quickly engulfed the front portion of the store, forcing the shoppers to move to the rear exit, which was locked.

He said investigators are focusing on reports that the fire was caused by a toy gun fired by the boy at a pile of firecrackers, triggering the explosion.

Initial reports added that the owner of the store, identified as Chong Yong Chan alias Kenneth Chu, a Taiwanese national, ordered the main entrance of the store to be closed to discourage looters.

Cubillo added the store is not licensed to sell firecrackers, which are traditionally used to greet the New Year.

Cubillo confirmed 25 people perished in the seven-hour fire that started around 4:30 p.m.

Authorities identified some of the victims as Sheila Teves, Annaliza Orayle, Mica Orayle, Eleonor Empimo, Catherine Mistula, Anna Mae Sanchez, Norissa Inday, Jun Rey Inday, Oscar Merino, Luzviminda Baguio.

The other fatalities who were identified as Brandy Bantasan, Felipe Obeña, Eddie Boy Obeña, Dante Pigay, Elvisa Dequinco, Helen Constantino, and Severina Cartagena died later while being treated at the Ormoc Sugar Planter Association (OSPA) hospital.

Eastern Visayas Regional police director Chief Superintendent Ely de la Paz said as many as 22 were brought to hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation and second degree burns.

Ormoc City Mayor Eric Codilla, for his part, ordered authorities to investigate the tragedy.

Codilla ordered a probe on reports that some of the customers were trapped while trying to escape through the back entrance, which also served as fire exit but was padlocked.

He described the fire as the worst to hit the city in terms of lives lost and vowed to charge those responsible for the tragedy.

One of the survivors, Glen Igot, said he and four others were able to get out through a maintenance trapdoor located at the ceiling of the store.

A vendor, Almera Moto, narrated how the fire quickly engulfed the whole store shortly after a series of sporadic explosions occurred.

Moto claimed seeing the store owner shouting at the people to go out.

She said Chu was not able to unlock the backdoor after he left the keys inside his office.

The Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) in Manila said an investigation is underway to determine the cause of the tragedy.

BFP chief for operations Chief Superintendent Enrique Linsangan said the provincial BFP was asked to submit a detailed report of the incident.

"We have well-trained, skilled and capable members of BFP in Ormoc and we hope to get result of their investigation tomorrow (Wednesday)," Linsangan added.

Linsangan said the investigation will focus on whether the store had followed the rules and regulations required under the Building Code of the Philippines.

The BFP will also check the provisions for entrances and exits of the establishment, he said.

Linsangan said the investigation will also check out reports that the store, once used as a warehouse, lacked the required water sprinklers and fire extinguishers.

He noted some of the casualties died in the vain effort to get water from the toilet to put out the blaze.

Many stores and malls throughout the country are still open on Christmas Day, giving families a chance for last-minute shopping as well as recreation.

Firecrackers and other pyrotechnics are extremely popular during the holidays, and accidents are common despite efforts to minimize reckless celebrations.

A day after the fire that struck down Ormoc, two firemen were injured while controlling a blaze that hit the provincial Capitol building in Cebu City.

Reports also said several vehicles belonging to the provincial government were among those burned in the early morning fire.

Four people were also injured in a two-hour fire that gutted several houses in Barangay Sta. Elena in Marikina City yesterday afternoon. -with Miriam Desacada, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Jaime Laude, AP, AFP

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