The stories of the injured and the remaining workers, told from varied perspectives in the burning building as they searched for the precious way out, weave a tragic workplace incident that to this day is still crying out for further investigation.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – “I thought we were at war being overrun by enemies.”
This was the first impression of a worker in HTI (House Technology Industries) when he thought he heard gunshots. It was 5:45 p.m. last February 1. He said the fire began around 5 p.m. After the ‘gunshots,’ when he looked back, he saw fire rapidly engulfing the workplace.
Having come from a conflict-torn village in Mindanao, he had immediately thought there was armed fighting when he heard the explosions. He moved to Laguna to search for jobs and peace. He found this job, which paid the minimum wage of P356 a day. He was still not regular on the job at the time of the factory fire.
Another survivor told his brother this: the main vacuum machine on the second floor did not turn off. But because a fire had begun, the HTI factory’s vacuum machine sucked the sawdust that was catching fire. Based on other workers’ recounting also of what happened in the biggest factory fire in the Philippines to date, the same vacuum machine, which had tubes running along the building, seemed to have spewed fire into other parts of that building of House Technology Industries (HTI) in Cavite.
Producing pre-fabricated houses for export, the factory building offered plenty of fuel to burn. It had tons of huge construction materials on every floor and an abundant supply of flammable materials in every department. These include hydraulic oil, sealant, thinner, paint, 100% alcohol and other volatile chemicals for casting and curing wood.
These, in a building of three floors, where the ground floor was said to be at least twice as high as an ordinary floor (to accommodate the various heights of houses they were constructing). Every floor of the building had no straight path to the main entrance/exit, according to the workers. Although they conducted fire drills, it turned out on February 1 that they had, at best, insufficient or non-functioning fire exits. Different workers reported finding either a locked fire exit, or one that did not open for going out of the building, or exits without a ladder.
When the fire was still in the early stage, a worker opened a fire exit at the second floor. He put down on the floor some materials he was carrying. When he looked up the fire exit was in flames. He rushed to their regular entrance/exit instead. He said most of the workers went out through the regular entrance/exit.
He said, “walang minuto, talagang kumalat ang apoy.” (In less than a minute, the fire had really spread.)
Another worker on overtime at the second floor said they saw something sparked and it reached the second floor.
“Nakita ko pa sa third floor, dami kumakaway.” (I saw from the third floor, a lot of hands waving at us.)
“Gusto ko bumalik pero di na ko pinabalik ng guard.” (I wanted to go back but the guard did not allow me to.)
He was able to get out of the building at 6 p.m. but stayed outside waiting for the rest of his fellow workers until 9 p.m. He did not see further movements from the third floor. He said he did not see other people coming to check on the workers.
A worker escaping the blaze saw a panicky couple entering a comfort room on the second floor. Since he did not see them come out and fire quickly enveloped that same area, he presumed they died there.
The stories of the injured and the remaining workers, told from varied perspectives in the burning building as they searched for a precious way out, weave a tragic workplace incident that to this day is still crying out for further investigation.
Hours since the blaze began on February 1, a columnist reported a noticeable shift in the sharing of news about the fire. From frantic news about missing or trapped workers to desperate estimates of how many had likely perished, the spreading news about the factory fire seemed to have also been snuffed out as the firefighters strove to put out the fire.
Three weeks since the massive fire happened yet just as quickly disappeared in the news, the Makabayan bloc of legislators endorsed in Congress what they described as a ‘shocking’ report on HTI factory fire to the House of Representatives’ labor committee. The report of a National Fact-Finding Mission of labor NGOs and organizations allied with KMU contradicted the assurances of Cavite Governor Jesus Crispin Remulla, the Philippine Export Processing Zone Authority (PEZA), and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) that “only” over a hundred (126 as reported) were injured and only three died. Authorities said all workers in the shift when the fire broke out had been accounted for. Even reports on the number of workers in the factory when the fire started varied: from 300 workers to 746 to 3,189.
The fact-finding mission found out that the HTI had listed only the names of their direct-hired regular workers when it claimed it had accounted for all its workers. HTI takes workers from five to six manpower agencies. One of these agencies, called “Helping Hand,” has up to a thousand workforce in various shifts and departments in the razed down building.
The investigation of the fact-finding team also revealed an apparent effort to cover up the actual tragedy of the HTI factory fire. There were even two versions on when the fire broke out. The official claim is that the fire broke out at 6 p.m. But some workers the fact-finding team interviewed were sure the fire broke out at around 5 p.m. The one-hour difference is instrumental in determining how many workers were in the building when the fire broke out.
The cover-up was also apparent as the workers and relatives of the victims who were interviewed by the team asked that their names be not published for fear of losing their jobs –they were promised they would still have jobs – and the salaries the management committed to paying them.
“There is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among HTI workers as they remain unusually silent and hesitant to speak about the circumstances of the tragedy,” observed Daisy Arago, spokesperson of the fact-finding mission.
The mission gathered that the HTI management did a headcount and a series of “orientation” with its remaining workers from February 2 to 4. The ‘orientation’ included telling the workers to withhold any information about the fire and refrain from talking about it to anyone.
A member of the fact-finding mission interviewed a worker who showed photos he had taken with his cellphone camera of the HTI factory fire, of the bodies of presumed dead workers and of workers including women jumping from a window. The next day the mission learned that the worker was instructed to erase the photos and videos.
“Other workers corroborated this but requested complete anonymity for fear of losing jobs or suffering reprisal,” said Arago.
On top of this, since February 1, the management of HTI, PEZA, and the LGU had barred the media from entering the Cavite Export Processing Zone. They noted also that the local government led by Cavite Gov. Boying Remulla was the only one speaking about the incident. The two hospitals where the injured were being treated were restricting the entry and access to victims and information.
Second HTI fire in 5 years
The National Fact Finding mission put together by various labor NGOs and sectoral organizations produced the ‘shocking’ report from three days of interviews with workers, survivors and their loved ones, and observation and interviews in the hospital and in areas where workers live and pass by on the way to work in Cavite. From what they gathered, they pieced together a sketch of the workplace tragedy.
Their findings suggested that the HTI management has committed violations of occupational health and safety and other labor standards. But PEZA Chief Charito Plaza cleared HTI and its parent company HRD Singapore of any violation of fire safety, occupational health and safety standards even before the investigation into the fire had been concluded.
Whether the fire started from the broiler or from a panel saw, the main question that needs answering, according to the fact-finding mission, was whether the company had operated this equipment longer than it should, causing its eventual failure and the fire. A former industrial worker from a first world country who joined the fact-finding mission said machines and equipment should be given maintenance time or at least allowed to cool first, and 24-hour factory operation should have more stringent temperature checks and safeguards.
“We condemn the HTI, PEZA and Cavite LGU for their apparent cover-up of what could be the worst workplace tragedy in history,” said KMU secretary-general Jerome Adonis in a statement. The labor center has demanded an immediate, independent and transparent investigation into the HTI fire.
In another statement, ACT Teachers Party-List Representatives Antonio Tinio and France Castro challenged PEZA and the local government to disprove suspicions of news blackout and possible cover-ups, by allowing an independent investigation into the fire.
That the fire was not put out immediately by fire extinguishers and sprinklers, that there were no apparent warning system and usable fire exits, convinced the members of the National Fact-Finding Mission that a huge violation had been committed and that the HTI should not be treated “with a kid’s glove.”