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Dozens feared dead in Philippines factory fire


fire_06Dozens of people were feared dead after a fire swept through a footwear factory in the Philippine capital Manila on Wednesday, with rescuers reporting “piles” of bodies inside.

Sixty-five people were unaccounted for after the blaze destroyed the factory in the industrial suburb of Valenzuela, but firemen and investigators had yet to establish the death toll, Rex Gatchalian, the mayor of the district told AFP.

“I’m hoping against hope that they’re still alive,” he added.

He had earlier told wailing relatives outside the burning flip-flop factory that none of those caught inside had survived the fire, although it was not clear how many may have been trapped.

The bodies of three people were pulled out in the afternoon, but firemen on the scene later told an AFP photographer there were “piles of bodies” on the second floor.

“Our people discovered skulls on the second floor,” Bureau of Fire Protection chief Ariel Barayuga told local GMA television in a live interview on the scene.

However, by early evening investigators have yet to pull them out from under the collapsed roof and walls of the building, an AFP reporter on the scene said.

“It’s still hot up there and there is thick smoke,” Barayuga said.

“Our investigators have to clear the debris first before we can give an official body count.”

Fire engines lined the street outside as night fell, with firemen continuing to direct their water cannons at the blackened building, which was bathed with beams from search lights.

The reek of foul-smelling chemicals hung in the air.

– ‘No one escaped’ –

City officials drew up an official list of potential victims from the accounts of relatives who said they had yet to locate family members who were on duty at the factory at the time the blaze struck before noon (0400 GMT).

The fire apparently started from a spark caused by welding at the building’s main entrance that reached flammable chemicals stored nearby, the mayor added.

A distraught factory worker Nedy Neverio, 35, joined other relatives gathered outside, anxiously awaiting word on her elder sister Nora Verenzuela, 42, and two nephews.

“Someone told us no one escaped from the area where she was assigned” packing flip-flops into bags, Neverio told AFP.

“My sister’s workplace was near the chemicals. She was not able to get out because the flames had spread,” Neverio added.

Injured survivor Emma Santa Agata told ABS-CBN television many of her fellow workers were trapped at their work stations on the second floor of the building.

“My boss and I were running out when we were blocked by fire and smoke,” Santa Agata said.

“There was a sudden explosion and he got hit on the arm,” said the woman, whose hair was singed according to the network.

Mayor Gatchalian said no one knew exactly how many factory workers were inside the building when the blaze started because their time charts also burned down and the foreman on duty was also unaccounted for.

Huge and sometimes deadly fires at sprawling slums as well as factories are a common occurrence in the Philippine capital, where fire safety regulations are sometimes wilfully disregarded.

In one of Manila’s deadliest-ever fires, 162 people were killed and 94 others injured at a disco in 1996.

Last year, 18 years after the blaze, two shareholders of the club and seven city building safety inspectors were sentenced to prison terms of up to 10 years for allowing the nightclub to operate without adequate safety precautions.

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