Seventy-one of the 72 workers who died in a factory fire have been identified by the forensic examiners of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Crime Laboratory.
Families of the Kentex fire victims met on June 11 with officers of the Crime Laboratory, Valenzuela City Health Office (CHO), and the City Social Welfare and Development Office (CSWDO) to know which of the eight bodies that had remained unidentified from the first meeting on June 4 belong to their dead kin.
Of the one body left unnamed, Emmanuel Aranas, Crime Laboratory Deputy Director for Operations, said its DNA is already destroyed to provide the investigators with any information.
On May 13, the factory of slippers maker Kentex Manufacturing Corporation was razed to the ground after sparks from welding works on a metal roll-up gate in the premises set on fire nearby containers of chemicals. It has been considered the worst industrial fire in Philippine history.
The fire that took authorities seven hours to put out had left the 69 workers’ cadavers charred beyond recognition, compelling Crime Laboratory to run DNA tests as a means to match bodies with names.
Three bodies, those of the factory owner’s adult son and female secretaries, remained recognizable and were identified right on the day of the fire.
The day after the tragedy, the 69 bodies were interred at the local public cemetery in Arkong Bato, their niches labelled only with code numbers.
Happy and sad at the same time
Until last Thursday, June 4, two cadavers had been labelled V14 and V54. The DNA test have revealed them to be siblings, Vicky Pontillas, 35, and Alfie Pontillas, 32.
“Happy but sad at the same time” was how Chalyn Cardillo, 37, an older sister of the two fire victims felt, upon seeing the remains of her deceased relative.
“Iyak na lang sila ng iyak (They could do nothing but cry)”, Cardillo, who was wearing a black blouse, said of her elderly parents when she had told them about her siblings’ death. “Sabi ko naman sa kanila, tanggapin na lang natin kung iyon talaga ang nangyari (I told them, though, Let’s just accept how things have turned out).”
On request of her parents, Cardillo is bringing her brother’s and sister’s remains to Butuan, the Pontillas’ native province.
The 10-sibling Pontillas family in the Mindanao province were rice farmers, whose life of grinding poverty deprived the children of higher education and eventually drove them to seek livelihood in Valenzuela City.
Starting with Cardillo, the Pontillas would come one by one, in hopes of earning a decent living at the factories. Both of them just barely out of puberty - one was either 18 or 19 - when they arrived in the city.
By the time the tragedy struck, four of them had been living here in Metro Manila. Youngest sister Ginalyn, 29, is now working in an ice cream cones factory, also in Valenzuela City.
Vicky would start working at Kentex at 20, Cardillo said. A piece-rate worker, she put together pairs of slippers into bundles of 12, for which she would be paid 50 centavos per bundle. To earn at least P300 in a day, she needed to assemble at least 600 bundles. Alfie, on the other hand, would join her sister at the factory, where he would fasten the thongs to the slipper’s footrest.
Despite struggling with making ends meet, the Pontillas would strive to send their parents money, Cardillo said.
Pregnant, dead at 19
Like the Pontillas, Carla Tejada started out young.
Both of her parents having no stable jobs, Tejada, instead of pursuing a college degree as she had always dreamed, went to work at a tsitsirya (junk food) factory in Valenzuela City. She was 18 then, her father Reynaldo, 49, said.
Soon, she would move to Kentex, where around three weeks into the job, she contracted a skin disease which made the skin from her neck down along her left arm scaly – “parang balakubak (like dandruff),” her mother Anita, 47, said.
This, and her pregnancy, compelled Tejada to leave the factory – but she would soon return, to earn the money for her impending delivery.
The morning the fire struck the factory, as Reynaldo stood outside Kentex’ walls among other horror-gripped families, he received a text message. It was from his daughter.
“Ang sabi, nakulong na daw sila doon sa loob. Humihingi ng saklolo (Carla said she and her co-workers were already trapped inside the factory. She was asking for help),” said Reynaldo.
When Anita, who had been living in Aklan for the last four years, learned about the fire, she was confident Tejada would survive.
“Magaling din kasing dumiskarte ang batang iyan. Hindi ako naniwala na hindi siya makalalabas (That child knew how to make her way out of problems. So I never doubted she would escape the fire),” Anita said.
The next day, Reynaldo would again see her daughter, or what remained of her.
Families were allowed to see the cadavers in body bags that had been brought at the Maysan Barangay Hall. The body labelled V58 had on its stomach another, however smaller, body, that of a seven-month-old fetus. Reynaldo knew right there and then those bodies belonged to his daughter and his unborn grandchild.
“Komo mainit, siyempre, sumabog ang tiyan. Hindi naman sa sumabog na ano, pumutok lang. Bumuka lang. Tapos, ‘yong bata, nandito. Hindi siya lumayo, nandito lang siya sa tiyan ng nanay niya (It was very hot so Carla’s womb exploded. Well, not really exploded, it just burst. It flayed out. Then, the fetus, it was here. It never went far, it stayed right on its mother’s stomach),” said Reynaldo.
The Tejadas had high hopes for their daughter, their only child. “Hindi pa ako masyadong nakakarecover. Masama pa rin ang pakiramdam ko. Iniisip namin kasi, magiging sandalan naming ang batang iyan, makatutulong sa amin pag tumanda kami. Ang nangyari, bigla na lang nawala (I have yet to fully recover from my daughter’s death. I am still hurting. My husband and I were hoping she’d look after us in old age. But what happened was, she just left us),” said Anita.
They are burying their daughter’s and grandchild’s remains at the Karuhatan Public Cemetery, where they would share a niche with those of Reynaldo’s parents.
Search for justice
The search for their perished bodies may be over, but there remains another search the families are not about to give up on: the search for justice.
“Kailangan naman talaga dapat na may managot. ‘Yan kasi, kung di mo kakasuhan, maaring sa mga susunod, ganoon pa rin ang mangyayari (Someone has to be held liable. If you don’t file a case against anyone, a similar tragedy can happen again),” said Anita.
Investigation of the Inter-Agency Anti-Arson Task Force, the panel the Department of Justice has put in charge of the investigation on the fire, has shown that the factory was not issued a fire safety inspection certificate (FSIC) by the Burea of Fire Protection (BFP) as it lacked fire alarms, sprinklers and protected fire exits.
The Valenzuela city government, on the other hand, has revealed that around 12,400 businesses in the city have no FSIC, all of which Mayor Rex Gatchalian recently revoked.
“Kakasuhan namin ang dapat managot. Ilalaban namin ang kaso na iyan (We will file charges against those who are accountable. We will pursue this case),” said Cardillo.
On June 8, the families filed cases against eight government officials, including Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas II.
Back to work
Meanwhile, 83 former factory workers displaced by the accident have found jobs through the aid of the Public Employment Services Office (PESO) in Valenzuela City. A total of 161 Kentex employees approached the agency for help in job seeking.
The City Government of Valenzuela, through the constant guidance of Mayor REX Gatchalian, provided all the necessary support to the victims from the first hour that the fire struck and even until present.