Police will open a criminal investigation into a Philippine factory fire that killed at least 72 people, as a relative of several of the victims said Thursday the blaze had trapped workers in the building's second floor where iron grills on windows prevented their escape.
"Definitely there will be charges here, because people died," said Leonardo Espina, acting director of the Philippine National Police.
"Regardless of whether it was an accident or arson, people died. We are just determining what exactly happened so that we can clearly define what charges to file."
Arson investigators have gone to the site to help city police in the probe, he added.
Most of the bodies were retrieved from the gutted two-story Kentex Manufacturing Corp. rubber flip-flop factory a day after the fire raged for over five hours in the outskirts of Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
As forensic officers worked to identify the dead and reconcile their names with those listed as missing, questions were being raised if the factory followed fire and building safety standards.
Determining the fire’s toll has been complicated by the difficulties of retrieving bodies from the wreckage, and estimates of the dead and missing by government and fire officials conflicted throughout Wednesday.
Local media reports quoted relatives as saying their kin sent frantic text messages asking for help from second floor, but contact was lost shortly after.
Police will file charges against "all those accountable and those at fault," said Espina.
Valenzuela city fire marshal Mel Jose Lagan said arson investigators will look into why the people were unable to escape from the second floor when there was a "sufficient exit" that includes a wide stairway to the back of the building leading to the outside. They will also look into whether there were more people inside the building than allowed.
Iron grill bars on windows are common in offices, factories and homes in the Philippines to keep away thieves. In workplaces or factories, they are also meant to prevent employees from stealing equipment or products.
Valenzuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian said that a workers logbook was lost in the fire and the foreman was among the dead, making it difficult to determine how many were inside the factory at the time.
The chief of the national police medical examiner's office, Emmanuel Aranas, said fingerprints could no longer be used to identify the burnt victims and forensic officers will have to rely on dental records, DNA and personal items to identify the bodies.
Gatchalian said the fire was apparently ignited by sparks from welding work at the factory's main entrance door, triggering an explosion of the chemicals used to make the slippers. Workers fled to the second floor where they were trapped, he said.
District Fire Marshal Wilberto Rico Neil Kwan Tiu said that the building had other exits but apparently the workers were overwhelmed by the thick black smoke from the burning rubber and chemicals, which are highly flammable and caused the blaze to spread quickly.