Helpless

Ill-equipped firemen could only watch victims die

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–As the raging bluish and reddish fire engulfed the five-story hotel, and thick, black smoke billowed from its openings, young men, trapped inside their rooms, were frantically waving, shouting and crying for help from the building’s grilled windows.

“We’re burning! May exam pa kami bukas (We’re having our exams tomorrow)!” one of the trapped men were heard shouting, as he and several others desperately tried to extricate themselves out of the window.

But responding firemen, whose ladder was short by two stories, could not reach out to the victims and could only helplessly watch. Minutes later, the wailings waned, and the waving hands, one after the other, disappeared. One victim whose body was later recovered had both legs jutting out of his hotel window.

The joint government panel which probed the fire tragedy that gutted two five-story buildings, including a hotel, in Tuguegarao City on the dawn of Dec. 19 noted the sheer inadequacies in equipment of the firemen, which prevented them from rescuing the 16 persons killed.

The buildings, which housed the Bed & Breakfast Pension Hotel, PA’s Sunshine Motorcycle Parts and Sunshine Marketing, were burned down in the 1 a.m. fire which, investigators theorized to have come from faulty electrical wiring inside the motorcycle parts store.

“They only had one axe which was (eventually) broken… They had only one cable which snapped… Not every fireman was equipped with a helmet. Their suits were old and appeared worn. The only ladder they had could reach only the second floor. They have one bolt cutter only,” the investigating panel said in a 20-page report.

Of those killed, 11 were nursing graduates and review students of University of La Sallette (ULS) in Santiago City who were to take the nursing licensure test that day.

The five others were members of the Fondevilla family, including Michael Norma, the hotel’s registered owner, his wife Amybelle, children Karyl and Josh, sister Mildred De Leon, and their house help, Jennifer Agtarap.

The other 27 male nursing examinees who stayed at the hotel, as well as two other guests and two roomboys, with the help of firefighters and managed to climbed down to safety. The building owners, spouses Pepito and Araceli Fondevilla, also survived.

The victims, who were trapped, died of suffocation from the thick black smoke caused by burning rubber and plastic, paint, and other materials, as rescuers could not get to them on time, the team said.

“The people on the ground outside the building, including the firemen, helplessly watched (the victims) die slowly. Some did their best to save (those trapped) although their best appeared not enough,” the report added.

But aside from the firefighters’ lack of equipment, the panel also blamed the negligence of 11 persons, including city and fire officials, for the tragedy.

The team, composed of prosecutors Marinette Gavino-Daliuag and Ronnel Nicolas, and police investigators SPO1 Pedro Binarao Jr. and PO3 Clifford Nolasco, found out that the hotel and the stores had managed to operate for almost the entire year in 2010 despite lack of a business permit.

The city mayor’s office, the report said, did not release the pre-signed permit because the owners failed to submit a fire safety inspection.

The four-member panel recommended the filing of criminal charges against the Fondevilla couple, for operating the stores without a permit. But the hotel’s registered owner, Michael Norma Fondevilla, was among those killed in the fire.

Administrative charges should also be filed, the panel said, against four city officials for gross neglect of duty, for failing to check on the Fondevillas’ “illegal” business operations.

Tuguegarao Mayor Delfin Ting was also implicated for “command responsibility”.

The DOJ-PNP panel cited other flaws which, due to fire officials’ failure to conduct an inspection, reportedly contributed to the tragedy: fire hazard materials, such as paints and aerosol sprays, were stored in the building; the hotel’s fire exits were not accessible.

As such, administrative charges were recommended to be filed against Fire Supt. Neil Caranguian, city fire marshall, and SFO4 Paulino Camacam, chief of the fire safety and investigation section.

The panel also found ULS officials to be liable, for failure of its clinical instructors, who arranged for the examinees’ stay at Bed & Breakfast, to look after their reviewees.

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