MANILA, Philippines – It was like any other afternoon at the factory. Then, suddenly, fire alarms went off.
"Sinabihan kami ng leader namin na maghintay at baka fire drill lang (Our leader told us to stay put as the alarms might be for a fire drill)," Ariel Jerome Seroma, 19, recounted the day the House Technology Industries (HTI) facility at the Cavite Export Processing Zone went up in flames. The company, after all, regularly conducted fire drills.
"Kitang-kita ng dalawang mata ko mula sa bintana ang dagat ng apoy palapit sa building namin. Takbo. Takbo pa," he wrote in a Facebook note. (I saw with my own eyes how the flames from outside the windows were spreading toward our building. Run. Run some more.)
Ariel, a contractual employee, was one of the 126 HTI workers listed as injured due to the incident. Fortunately, he did not sustain any serious injury.
He was on the 3rd floor of the building when the fire broke out at the factory early evening of February 1.
'So this is death?'
According to Ariel, the moment he saw other workers running, he found himself running toward the stairs, too.
"Ayan na ang apoy! (Here comes the fire!)" he recalled other HTI employees shouting. "Bilis! Ayoko pa mamatay! Kalma lang! 'Wag mag-panic! (Faster! I don't want to die yet! Be calm! Don't panic!)"
They heard a loud explosion as they descended the building. When they reached the ground floor, thick clouds of smoke filled the exit.
Ariel slowly went back up to the second floor of the building. Then the lights went off.
"I heard screams, shouts, loud coughs, loud questions, loud weeps, and continuous sounds of fear from everyone. Kinakain na ng usok ang mga nasa hagdan pababa (Those at the stairs were being engulfed by the smoke already)," he said.
"So is this death?" he asked, at that moment ready to accept his fate. Then somebody caught his arm – it was his friend Roselyn.
Then there was light
From afar, light shone from outside. Ariel saw another employee, Melvin, break the windows and jump onto the roof of the adjacent building. He and Roselyn followed suit.
From the rooftop, Melvin jumped down a tent, which collapsed under his weight. Melvin hit the ground badly wounded.
Security guards came to his rescue. Another employee who was on the roof jumped too, and sustained injuries.
By this time, Ariel and Roselyn were the only ones left on the rooftop. The fire was roughly 10 meters away from them. Roselyn wanted to jump; Ariel kept her from doing so: "Maliligtas tayo. Magdasal tayo. Tiwala lang. (We will be saved. Let's pray. Have faith)."
Ariel continued shouting for help. The guards below brought them a ladder, but it was too short to reach the roof. They waited for a long while, until fire trucks came and set up a taller ladder.
"Ligtas na tayo (We're safe now)," Ariel recalled telling Roselyn.
According to official reports, all 3,189 workers who were on shift when the incident happened had been accounted for.
Authorities said that all were safe, except the 126 workers listed as injured. Six sustained body burns on more than half of their bodies while some – those who jumped from the building – were treated for broken bones.
Of the 6 in critical condition, one succumbed to severe body burns evening of February 4. Jerome Sismaet, 37, died in the hospital. He was a line leader at the factory.
Cavite Governor Jesus Crispin Remulla said it was the likes of Jerome – the line leaders assigned to smaller groups of employees – who were instrumental in getting all the employees out. They checked on their team members, and made sure none of them were left in the building before they minded their own safety.
The HTI facility, where housing materials for export to Japan are manufactured, occupies 80 hectares in the export processing zone, but the fire affected only around 6 hectares.
Initial findings attribute the cause of fire to a mechanical incident. Fire bureau chief Bobby Baruelo said the presence of combustible materials caused the immediate spreading of fire.
Probe is ongoing, as fire and crime investigators said the rest of the facility had to be dismantled to gather more evidence and look for bodies, if any.
Not jobless for long
HTI is considered the biggest and the best employer in town. The job comes with good benefit packages and housing for senior employees.
Now, the fire left about 15,000 workers jobless. Damage is estimated to be between P12 billion and P15 billion.
Citing the commitment made by the HTI management, Remulla earlier said that all workers rendered jobless would be called back to work.
According to Ariel, the company gave assurances that they are committed to help all them.
"Sabi ng company, 'Cheer up and never give up.' Hindi naman daw po kami pababayaan. (The company told us, 'Cheer up and never give up.' They are there to help us)," he told Rappler.
The experience was traumatizing, Ariel said. He wants to forget what happened, but is grateful for the chance to live again.
"Sobrang pasalamat na lang talaga ako sa Panginoon dahil 'niligtas n'ya ako at binigyan n'ya pa ako ng pagkakataon para mabuhay at i-enjoy ang buhay," he said. (I am grateful to the Lord that he saved me, and he gave me another chance to live and enjoy life.) – Rappler.com