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Mall safety officer perished while trying to save more lives

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By Yas Ocampo, PNA, and Antonio Colina IV

Davao City – When fire broke out at a furniture store on the third level of the 14-year-old New City Commercial Center (NCCC) in Davao City at about 9:30 a.m. on December 23, it quickly engulfed an outsourcing business on the upper floor.

On that day, Melvin Ga-a, a member of the NCCC Emergency Action Team (NEAT) had his hands full.

Thea Padua, NCCC’s spokesperson said Melvin helped brought down 83 employees of the US-based Research Now Survey Sample Inc. (SSI) and about 700 NCCC mall personnel and guests.

“Melvin had already brought down several SSI employees and was already seen having safely exited the building at the ground floor. But instead of remaining downstairs, he went upstairs again to try to save more people,” said Padua. Melvin never resurfaced.

MALL FIRE HERO – Melvin Ga-a rescued close to 800 people from a burning mall in Davao City before he died trying to save more lives. (Photo from the Facebook account of Melvin Ga-a)

MALL FIRE HERO – Melvin Ga-a rescued close to 800 people from a burning mall in Davao City before he died trying to save more lives. (Photo from the Facebook account of Melvin Ga-a)

His remains were identified by his wife Rosela Tuesday as one of 36 persons recovered by the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) Monday night near the lobby of the SSI offices on the fourth floor.

“We offer his family our sympathies and recognize with the deepest gratitude Melvin’s sacrifice,” said Padua

Two missing

Thirty-six bodies have so far been identified. Two SSI employees remain missing. Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio said a DNA test will be conducted on the remains of two who were charred beyond recognition.

The family of Mikko Demafeliz already submitted DNA samples while representatives from the City Social Welfare and Development Office are coordinating with the family of Alexandra Moreno.

Lloyd Angeles, the SSI team leader recounted how he tried to save his co-employees trapped in their work areas.

“It was not minutes but seconds po. Everything happened so fast. We followed the (evacuation) plan and divided each teams to their respective exits but the smoke was already thick and it was already hot”, Angeles said in his Facebook post in the morning of Dec. 25.

“I picked up an extinguisher thinking the fire is the AHU. I looked to my right and saw agents just standing looking at each other and this was the fire exit going to Ma-a and asked them what are they doing. Someone said (the) smoke was too thick. We said “go to the Lobby,” he posted.

Angeles said as thick smoke built up inside the office, people hurriedly made their way out while he rushed to locate his co-workers.

“While people are exiting, someone told me there are still people sa locker area. I ran to the locker area and smoke was already black and I yelled “lobby” so many times I couldn’t count it. After everyone exited the hallway, I started moving towards the lobby and exited the building,” he said.

As flames razed the building and burning debris started to fall, Angeles said, he did his best to direct his teammates to safety.

“On the ground I started checking my team’s headcount, ran to the other side of NCCC and started yelling “W3, W3, W3” then went to back of the mall to check if I have agents there too,” he said.

“When they told me that we are missing four (officemates), and two of those are confirmed that they are still inside, I went back up and informed the fire fighters that we still have people trapped.”

Angeles said the scorching heat and the thick smoke prevented firefighters and rescue teams from entering the fourth floor of the shopping mall.

“We tried to go back in on every possible entry and it was too hot and the smoke was too thick,” he said.

“Nagsige mi ug balik2 sa mga entry points dili dyud makaya miski tung special unit sa fire na naka special gear di gihapon makaya. (We tried getting to the entry points but we couldn’t, even the fire special units who wore special gears failed to get in),” his post read.

“This is the saddest Christmas. Dili ko makatulog thinking about them (I couldn’t sleep thinking about them). Dili gihapon nako madawat ang nahitabo I can see their faces everytime I close my eyes. (I also couldn’t accept what happened. I see their faces everytime I close my eyes),” Angeles added.

“I am so sorry. I know you are all up there. Rest in peace and please watch over us,” he said referring to Jade Entera, Mikko Demafeliz, Analiza Peñarijo, Randy Balcao, Apple Jane Abes Celades, Maryjoy Hope A. Daluro (Mj), Jessica Solis, Rai Rai Ken, Chinee Bangoy (Kurtchin Angela), Christine Fern, Venus Joy Kimpo, Ivan Nebelle L. Roble, Jeffrey Sismar, Ian Kiem Adlawan and the rest of the trapped agents.

700 degrees heat

Bureau of Fire Protection 11 Regional Director Wilberto Rico Neil Kwan Tiu apologized to the family of the victims for not commanding and forcibly directing fire rescue teams to penetrate the building already at 500 to 700 degree Celsius temperature inside.

Tiu said every time rescue teams would move forward they were met with so much heat and thick smoke “more than what people see escaping from the walls of the mall.”

The responders had to back off again every time they move forward.

“We cannot sustain the heat and we have to make a strategy again,” he said. The high temperature, he said could melt the equipment and gears of the rescue teams.

BFP lacks equipment like high ladders and for boring holes in walls of burning buildings. The last time the agency got new assets was during the Ramos administration.

‘I love you all’

Rhen Muyco said her 25-year-old daughter Renzi Nova called her by mobile phone as fire raged Saturday. “Ma, there is a fire here. If something happens to me, I love you all,” she said by mobile phone.

Duterte-Carpio said the city will shoulder the funeral expense of the victims while SSI vowed to provide the bereaved families with livelihood packages. Most of those who died were breadwinners.

The NCCC also will provide scholarships for the children of the victims.

Three agencies – NBI, BFP and the DILG – are currently investigating the incident.

Here is the updated list of NCCC fire victims:

  1. Sismar, Jeffrey
  2. Bongcayao, Mary Louielyn
  3. Bangoy, Kurtchin Angela
  4. Pabelonia, Joy
  5. Garzon, Christen
  6. Quimsing, Jim Benedict
  7. Basalan, Jonas
  8. Samontina, Jessica
  9. Quimpo, Venus Joy
  10. Limosnero, Jimboy
  11. Ferraren, Christine Joy
  12. Montanez, Rosyl
  13. Artiaga, Missy Rose
  14. Muyco, Rhenzi Nova
  15. Roble, Ivan Nebelle
  16. Yorsua, Elyn Joy
  17. Bacaling, Shiela Mae
  18. Antipuesto, Roderick
  19. Abad, Nancy Loyd
  20. Solis, Jessica
  21. Liwaya, Charlyn
  22. Ga-a, Melvin
  23. Generales, Regine
  24. Celestial, Gantioco
  25. Celades, Apple Jane
  26. Adlawan, Ian Kiem
  27. Entera, Lister Jade
  28. Piñajiro, Analiza
  29. Alviola, Christine
  30. Constantinopla, Roderick
  31. Zacarias, Dresiree Gayle
  32. Matundo, Johani
  33. Apalacio, Iana
  34. Daloro, Maryjoy
  35. Balcao, Randy
  36. Obo, Janine Joy

The bodies have already been claimed, while the rest are in a funeral home waiting for proof of identification.

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