Exit locked at Kentex footwear factory — fire survivors

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(CNN Philippines) — Some workers of Kentex Manufacting Corp. had to pry open with a metal bar a locked fire exit to escape the blaze that struck the footwear factory in Valenzuela on Wednesday (May 13).

Noriel Coralde, who has been working for the factory for a month, told CNN Philippines that he and some co-workers tried to call out to the security guard on the other side for help.

When nobody came, they decided to destroy the lock of the fire exit.

On the second floor of the gutted factory, firefighters found the charred bodies of 69 workers.

Investigators said the workers might have ran there in hopes of escaping through the windows. But they soon found themselves trapped, as the windows were fitted with metal grills.

Valenzuela City Mayor Rexlon Gatchalian said that those workers probably died of suffocation.

Investigators are looking at the reason behind the huge number of deaths at the factory — which exceeded the 54 workers declared by the Department of Labor and Employment.

On Thursday (May 14), Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II said the company could be doing a pakyawan system, which means the owner hired workers in the neighborhood, paying them a fixed fee to produce a certain number of items, to meet the daily demand.

This could have caused overcrowding in the factory, he added.

Roxas added that another issue being investigated was that the second floor allegedly had no sprinklers, as required in establishments with more than 50 employees.

Survivors also said the company did not conduct any fire drill.

Investigators are also checking whether the company got a work permit for the welding repair of the roll-up gate.

Related: Officials confirm Valenzuela fire caused by welding sparks

Roxas gave two weeks for the investigation to be finished.

On Friday (May 15), Supt. Crispulo Diaz, assistant regional director of the Bureau of Fire Protection-National Capital Region (BFP-NCR), said that even if the company had the proper permit, doing the welding repair near highly flammable materials was a violation.

He added that, in his observation, failure to secure a hot work permit is a common violation of businesses.

An interagency task force is now consolidating all documents, such as fire drill certificates, of the factory.

He cited that authorities are also looking into possible lapses in the implementation and monitoring of safety standards by the fire safety inspector and the chief of the city’s fire enforcement.

For now, the BFP has temporarily relieved Supt. Mel Jose Lagan, Valenzuela fire chief, and Senior Insp. Ed-groover Oculam, chief of the fire safety enforcement section of the city.

This, the BFP pointed out, was not to imply that the two officials were liable. But it would allow investigators to be more objective.

The DOLE also started its own investigation on the possible violations by the owner of the Kentex.

Related: Labor group demands justice for Kentex fire victims

It said that it invited the owner, Ong King Guan, to attend a media conference on Monday morning (May 18).

DNA testing

Out of the 72 bodies, only seven were identifiable from their clothes and the jewelry — bracelets, necklaces, or rings — they wore.

The others were burned beyond recognition.

Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) conducted DNA testing to help identify the victims, but said it could take months to complete the process for all the bodies.

Retrieval operations continued at 8:00 a.m. on Friday (May 15), as at least 13 workers remained missing.

The Philippine National Police created a task force to help with the retrieval of bodies. This is led by Chief Supt. Jonathan Ferdinand Miano, chief of the Northern Police District.

Gatchalian said the city government of Valenzuela, an emerging industrial center, will look into how the other businesses in the city are following safety procedures.

Related: Valenzuela mourns as more bodies found in gutted factory

Remains of the workers will be temporarily buried in "apartment-type" graves on Friday.

CNN Philippines’ Gerg Cahiles and Rex Remitio contributed to this report.