On February 1, I watched with many as the fire at the House Technologies Industries (HTI) inside the Cavite Export Processing Zone grew bigger and bigger, seemingly beyond control.
On February 2, at 12:30AM, the fire was declared under control (ABS-CBNNews). Yet all day the building continued to spew smoke. By early evening fire started on the building again.
On February 3, at 4:15PM, officials finally declared fire out on the building (CNN Philippines).
No casualties declared as of 3:19AM, February 4. We’re being told that all employees are accounted for, and that the number of those confined in hospitals has dwindled.
Testimonials in real time
On the evening when the fire was at its largest, there was barely any media coverage of it. It wasn’t because there was no media who tried to get in, but because media was not being allowed to enter the CEPZ.
On that first evening, what I was monitoring were Facebook comment threads on videos uploaded by either HTI employees who had survived the fire, OR other workers in the CEPZ compound, OR those who were in the vicinity.
At 8:28PM, the number of dead being mentioned by testimonials were at 75. (Anha Azil, Mark Dorado, 8:28)
As early as 8:35PM, Facebook threads would talk about how they could still hear explosions from the site itself. (Jovann Custodio, Feb 1)
At 8:41, testimonials from survivors, talking about how they saw their advisers burned by the fire, and how so many were trapped on the second floor (Marinel Mendoza, Feb 1).
The numbers were grim: a first source from Cavite had pegged it to 300 dead at 11:00PM.
At 11:08PM, a Facebook post would declare 79 dead, 200 trapped inside HTI, and calling for respondents and volunteers. (Jess Hernandez, Feb 1)
At 11:24PM, a comment on one of the Facebook threads talked about a survivor recounting the fire, how so many trapped inside the building had jumped from the second floor of the structure and came home with broken limbs, and how so many were burned. A former worker of HTI replies and says the fire exits work, but with so many employees it might not be enough. (Shawie Sagun Balanza, Ramil Herrera, Feb 1, 11:24PM)
On February 2, 1:00AM, Pinoy Weekly would post on its Facebook page, based on data from the Workers Assistance Center in Rosario Cavite: “As of 9:30PM 107 na ang mga manggagawang namatay sa sunog sa HTI na naganap ng alas 6:00 ng gabi. Ang apoy ay nagmula sa unang palapag ng gusali, kaya naipit ang humigit- kumulang sa 300 na manggagawa na nasa ikalawa at ikatlong palapag.
“As of 11:00PM, patuloy pa din ang apoy at panaka-naka ay may sumasabog dahil sa mga chemicals. Tinatayang mahigit 200 na ang patay, and still counting.
“Wala pang independiyenteng kompirmasyon sa bilang ng biktima ng sunog.”
Now certainly one cannot rely on these real-time survivors’ statements. HTI and the Remullas – the Cavite dynasty – can say this is all hearsay. After all, no one could go near the site, and emotions were high.
But also there was no one from HTI in sight at the height of the fire.
At 11:42PM on February 1, an interview on DZMM Teleradyo with the rescue team at CEPZ talked about how there was no one from HTI who was speaking to them and telling them how many more might be trapped inside the building, Because it is not the local government that handles the inspection of buildings inside ecozones, firemen and rescue workers were unfamiliar with this building, which made their work harder and slower.
That’s at least five hours after the fire started (if we are to believe that it started at 6:00PM), and no one official of HTI was in charge of the rescue of its own workers.
At 10:59PM on February 1, Governor Boying Remulla via PTV 4 had that 300 people were in the building when the fire broke out, that 40 were brought to the hospital so far, and “May mga naipit pa sa loob.” (PTV 4 on Twitter)
Close to midnight on February 1, Jonvic Remulla would post on his Facebook page: “We are all one tonight in prayer for those who perished and are yet to be accounted for in the HTI fire.” (11:53PM)
Around 2:00AM of February 2, I had noticed a change in the conversation about the HTI fire on Facebook comment threads. The conversations were being shifted from talking about workers trapped and survivor testimonials, to insisting that no one had died.
By the morning of February 2, we would see this shift in rhetoric from official statements as well. Governor Remulla would declare: 104 in the hospital, 10 with third degree burns, some critical (GMANetwork.com, 10:26AM).
There was no count of casualties, because HTI was still conducting a headcount of employees – asking them to come for attendance that morning. No one dared ask: why did the company not know how many workers were in that building at the time of the fire?
No one asked: why is there no official statement from owners of HTI itself, and nothing either from the leaders of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA), not even newly appointed director general Charito Plaza?
No one asked: why isn’t the media being allowed into the CEPZ, which by the way, is government-owned?
Instead what we got was more contradictory information. On February 3, Charito Plaza of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) would finally speak: 7,000 employees were working when the fire broke, and some were trapped in the upper floors (Manila Times, Feb 3). In the same article, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello would say that he had “directed an immediate determination of whether or not HTI has complied with basic employment standards.”
Contrary to the declarations that the fire started at 6:00PM, it started at 5:00PM according to the regional director of the Calabarzon Bureau of Fire Protection. This is important, because contrary to what Governor Remulla is saying, that the fire happened between shifts, family of survivors were posting on Facebook about how thankful they were that loved ones who work for HTI were not doing over time on the day of the fire.
Overtime would mean ending their shifts at 6:00PM. No overtime? 3:00PM. (Bobby delos Reyes, Feb 1, 10:59PM)
Five days since the HTI fire, there is still no clear sense of how many employees were actually in that building when the fire broke. No official statement from HTI, no public apology.
Since February 1, we’ve seen how government officials shamelessly became de facto spokespersons for this 100% foreign-owned company that barely pays any taxes.
The narrative from Governor Remulla, PEZA chief Plaza, and even Zenaida Campita of the Labor Department is about making sure that workers still have jobs. HTI is rebuilding its factory – and hooray! hiring 20,000 more workers!
That explains doesn’t it, how and why HTI will get away with no investigations, no Senate inquiries, no calls that it be held liable for this fire.
How lucky can these foreign-owned factories get in this time of purported change.
Published in The Manila Times, February 5 2017.