Some HTI fire survivors shared that they had crawled on bodies of workers who appeared to be unconscious at the second floor.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Before midnight of February 5, HTI worker Jerome Sismaet, 37, died of severe burns as confirmed by Cavite Governor Jesus Crispin Remulla in his Facebook post.
Sismaet had helped to pull out from the rapidly spreading fire in HTI (House Technology Industries) some of his co-workers, but in the process, he himself was engulfed by the fire. He managed to run to the ground floor of the burning factory building where he collapsed unconscious and was eventually brought to Divine Grace Medical Center in General Trias, Cavite.
Sismaet was the first confirmed dead worker in the HTI factory fire that blazed for hours, punctuated by explosions, since February 1 in Cavite Export Processing Zone.
Despite the hundreds of reported injured workers, the official statements from Cavite Governor Remulla, PEZA Chief Charito Plaza and Zenaida Campita of the Labor Department were upbeat assurances that the workers are “all accounted for;” they would continue to have jobs; they would still receive their salaries, and the hospitalization of the injured would be shouldered by the HTI.
As of this writing, though, there is yet no number to confirm how many the “all accounted for” workers are.
Estimates of the number of workers in the HTI complex at the time of the fire ranged from 7,000 and up.
Relatives of the injured, people in nearby communities from drivers to store owners, former and current workers in HTI, and landlords where many of the workers were renting rooms were consistent in saying “it’s impossible that not many workers had died based on the degree of fire injuries we have seen and heard.”
Members of an independent fact-finding mission led by labor NGOs such as Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research and the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights observed what seemed to be a clampdown on information on whether workers who were previously unaccounted for are still missing or have died in the fire.
However, many eyewitnesses including HTI workers have told the fact-finding mission about the rapidity of the spread of the fire, forcing the workers inside to scramble out of the building. These witnesses confirmed that the fire started around 5:00 p.m., similar to the statement of the regional director of the Calabarzon Bureau of Fire Protection, and not 6 p.m. as being estimated by Remulla and other officials. The exact time of the fire was crucial because Governor Remulla reported, from his sources from HTI management, that not as many workers were affected because of the change in shifts. They said many of the workers had come out and the next shift was still to come in when the fire began.
But witnesses, survivors, and persons who heard the workers talk about their escape from the fire said the workers’ scramble to the exit had been difficult.
The factory is producing pre-fabricated houses for export to Japan, Australia and other countries. As such, large housing materials made of concrete-like wood and treating chemicals were on the floor of every department of the building. It reportedly turned the way to the exit into a zigzagging, narrow route.
Former and present workers of HTI interviewed by the fact-finding mission described the so-called fire exits as frequently locked. They said that because their products are pre-fab houses, and some can be tall and big depending on customers’ orders, the factory ground floor had an 18 feet clearance from the second floor. This meant that workers at the second and third floor had to come down from a higher place.
Although HTI regularly performed fire and safety drills, accounts gathered by the fact-finding teams said the workers found no ladder in the designated fire exit and so the workers had to go out through their “usual entrance/exit route,” or jump down from windows.
The windows in the second and third floor reportedly had no steel grilles, just sliding glass windows. But even when they had broken the glass windows, workers said it was difficult to go out through these windows when the rapidly spreading fire was already upon them.
The fact-finding mission led by EILER and CTUHR heard accounts of desperate forced to jump from the burning second floor toward the ground floor. Some saw hands waving from women workers trapped on the third floor.
Some survivors shared that they had crawled on bodies of workers who appeared to be unconscious on the second floor.
Social networking sites also published posts from HTI workers and even from firefighters saying various estimates of the number of workers who perished in the fire.
Lawmakers from the Makabayan bloc prepared to file today Monday, February 6, a resolution urging the House Committee on Labor and Employment to probe the HTI factory fire in Cavite and to conduct an investigation on the working conditions inside economic zones in the country.