Kentex fire: Palace eyes raps vs Valenzuela officials

MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III said the government is eyeing charges against Valenzuela City officials besides the owners of the ill-fated Kentex factory for the death of 72 people in one of the country's worst fire incidents.

"One of the charges that is being studied is reckless imprudence resulting in homicide, multiple homicide," Aquino said. 

Aquino effectively cleared the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) and partly blamed the incident on City Hall officials for the fire that gutted the footwear factory. It's a position lamented by Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian, who maintains that the BFP is to blame for the incident.

Aquino said city hall should not have granted the factory a business permit without the requisite fire safety inspection certificate (FSIC) from the BFP. In the aftermath of the tragedy, government inspection showed that the establishments operating around Kentex are also violating the Fire Code. (READ: 23 factories near Kentex also show fire code violations)

"The Bureau of Fire Protection correctly stated that there was a violation of the Fire Code. It could not issue a fire safety inspection certificate. [But] there were people in the Valenzuela city government who gave them a permit and a certificate of occupancy. That is an established fact. Therefore, the next step will be a preliminary investigation, which is a necessary process under our system of laws leading to charges," Aquino said in a press briefing on Monday, June 1.

"Ginawa ng BFP trabaho nila. In 2014, in-inspect. May kakulangan. In-inform ang kaukulang kumpanya at saka ang pagkainitindi ko local government unit din," Aquino added. (BFP did their work. In 2014, they inspected and found a deficiency. The concerned company was informed and in my understanding, even the local government unit.)

Section 5 in relation to Section 11 of RA 9154 or the Revised Fire Code of the Philippines of 2008 states: “No occupancy permit, business or permit to operate shall be issued without securing a Fire Safety Inspection Certification (FSIC) from the Chief, BFP, or his/her duly authorized representative.”

Aquino faced the media after the Inter-Agency Anti-Arson Task Force (IATF) formed by Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II submitted its report on the incident.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said her department will review the report to see who will be facing charges. "It's a whole-of-government approach, sabi ng Pangulo. And doon sa liability nga ‘nung private individuals, government officials or public officers, local and possibly ‘yung inspector involved," she said. (It's a whole-of-government approach, the President said. As for the liability of private officials, government officials or public officers, it will possibly be the local and the inspector involved.)

The investigation showed that Kentex committed several violations of the Fire Code. Aquino said it did not have a fire sprinkler, a fire detection system, an alarm, and a protected fire exit.

"It's a tragedy waiting to happen," said Aquino. The hours-long fire on May 13 started when a spark from welding work landed on nearby combustible materials. The fire immediately spread and the employees who could not find an exit burned to death.

Aquino said Kentex was issued an FSIC only in 2012 but it still managed to get permits from city hall.

"Siguro isa sa potensyal na kaso dito, hindi mo ginawa ‘yung trabaho mo. Dapat… Maliwanag nandiyan wala eh. ‘Nung wala diyan, sinabi mo meron. May falsification na rin ‘yon ng public document. Magpapatong-patong ang kaso," Aquino added. (Maybe one potential case here is, you didn't do your job. It's clear there. When the [FSIC] was not there, you said they had it. There's falsification of a public document. The cases will pile up one on top of the other.)

Mayor blames BFP, cites 3 circulars

Mayor Gatchalian was however adamant about blaming the BFP. He defended the issuance of a "provisional business permit" to Kentex, based on at least 3 memorandum circulars issued after the Fire Code, and which are widely used by local government units (LGUs). 

Citing Memorandum Circular No. 2011-05-January 4, 2011 issued by the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, Gatchalian said it is the responsiblity of the BFP to notify city hall, through a written report, to recommend the revocation of permits, for example.

It states: “In addition to the ‘Notice to Comply/Notice to Correct Violations’ issued to erring occupancies, the City/Municipal Fire Marshall shall then issue a written report notifying the Local Chief Executive wherein all the names of the non-compliant establishments are listed, and expressly stating therein a recommendation not to issue any of the following permits, or revoke existing ones, when applicable - - xxx”

"It is thus clear that the insistence of the BFP that Valenzuela City Hall officials are liable for the Kentex incident is baseless and is but a cover for the incompetence of the local BFP. It is on record that the concerned  BFP officials in Valenzuela City never reported to us any fire safety violations of any company. And the BFP is now trying to pass the blame on the LGU when in truth and in fact, they should be the one charged for gross neglect of duty and utter incompetence," Gatchalian said.

"It is the height of irony that we are now being penalized for following the memorandum circulars issued by the DILG and the BFP which authorized LGUs like Valenzuela City to issue provisional business permits pending issuance of the FSIC by the local fire marshall," he added.

The Valenzuela mayor also said the BFP had not been able to do its job of conducting fire safety inspections.

Citing records from the city's Business Permits and Licensing Office, Gatchalian said that of the 15,775 business permit renewal applications for the period of January 1 to December 31, 2014, only 3,577 were issued the FSIC.

Gatchalian said that if the local government waited for the BFP to finish its inspections, business would be affected. 

"If we keep on waiting, what will happen to the businesses? What will happen to the economy?" he asked. – Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler.com