Justice dep't launches criminal probe after deadly Davao mall fire

DAVAO CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – Philippine authorities ordered a criminal investigation Monday, December 25, into a shopping mall fire in Davao City that killed dozens of people, most of them call center staff from an American firm.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II announced the inquiry as the government raised the toll from the NCCC mall fire in Davao on Saturday, December 23, to one dead and 38 missing.

The fire compounded the Christmas misery in the south of the mainly Catholic nation where tens of thousands were also displaced by floods and landslides from a storm that also killed more than 200 others on Friday, December 22.

"By punishing those responsible, we can set an example to others so that, hopefully, there will be no repetition of those tragedies," Aguirre said in a statement.

Deadly blazes occur regularly in the Philippines, particularly in slum areas where there are virtually no fire safety standards.

US-based market research company SSI confirmed on its website late Sunday, December 24 that 37 of its 500 employees were "lost" from its Davao unit, which leased the 4-story building's top floor.

'Terrible tragedy'

"This terrible tragedy has left us with heavy hearts. We offer our condolences and prayers to the families and loved ones of the victims," chief executive Gary Laben said in the statement.

The company said it has arranged for counseling for its employees, and will support funeral arrangements and set up a fund to assist the bereaved.

Local authorities  on Sunday said no one trapped in the fire would have survived and firemen have only managed to retrieve one unidentified body so far.

Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, a daughter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, raised the toll from the tragedy on Monday, saying 38 other people apart from the recovered body found were missing – two more than previously listed.

The city's fire marshal had described the shopping mall as "an enclosed space with no ventilation", though the authorities said they had yet to determine the cause of the blaze.

The building's administrators on Sunday denied allegations from survivors that there were inadequate emergency fire exits and that some of them were locked.

"There is no truth to that allegation. In fact as per accounts of those who got out, they were able get out thru the fire exit," Thea Padua, the mall's public relations officer, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) by text message.

Slow recovery

Some relatives of those missing criticized rescuers for what they felt was the slow pace of recovery efforts. (IN PHOTOS: Duterte cries with kin of Davao mall fire victims)

"They seem so relaxed," said Jolita Basalan, weeping as she waited for news of her missing 29-year-old son Jonas who worked at the call center.

"They are not pained because they don't have a child there. They told us to come here but no one is moving," she told AFP.

Corruption and exploitation mean supposedly strict fire standards are often not enforced in the Philippines.

In 2015, a fire tore through a footwear factory in Manila, killing 72. Survivors of that blaze blamed barred windows and other sweatshop conditions for trapping people inside the factory.

In the deadliest fire in the Philippines in recent times, 162 people were killed in a huge blaze that gutted a Manila disco in 1996.

With low wages but strong English language skills, the Asian nation is a popular destination for international companies to set up customer call centers in its big cities including Davao, 900-plus kilometers (more than 500 miles) south of Manila. – Rappler.com