NCCC Mall blaze: Whose Fault and Failure?
Screen grab from 24 Oras official YouTube channel
THE NIGHTMARE before Christmas day began at 9:30 in the morning of December 23, as a blaze swept through the third floor of Davao City’s New City Commercial Center (NCCC) Mall which housed a call center, Survey Sampling International (SSI). The outbreak of the disaster made rounds in social media as locals reported the fire. The rest of the news media picked up on the difficulty of putting out the blaze and the count of 38 lives lost—an event which caused President Rodrigo Duterte to weep.
Reports were expected to provide answers to the questions about fire safety issues. What caused the fire? What made it so difficult to put it out? What prevented the rescue of those in other parts of the building? Was the structure built according to standards for fire safety?
CMFR monitored reports from the newspapers Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star; primetime newscasts 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), Network News (CNN Philippines) and TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2); as well as select news websites from December 23, 2017 to January 4, 2018.
Lacks follow through
News of the blaze appeared in the weekend newscast of 24 Oras and in online news website Rappler on the same day of the fire. Other TV news programs reported the following day, along with newspapers Manila Bulletin and The Philippine Star. Inquirer’s first edition on December 25 carried a report on the fire. Coverage at this stage described the efforts to contain the fire and to rescue those who were trapped in the building, including SSI call center agents.
On Christmas day, the media reported updates on casualty count, identification of victims and related search operations. The press did not follow up on survivors’ claims about faulty systems to deal with fire and safety.
The press did report questions raised by labor groups such as Business Process Outsourcing Industry Employees Network (BIEN), Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) Southern Mindanao and the Associated Labor Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUCP), all calling for a thorough investigation of the fire and questioning the compliance with the labor and fire safety laws.
Without follow through, the coverage failed to unearth as early as possible much needed information which could have answered the most pressing questions surrounding the incident.
The history of fire disasters in the country is remarkable enough to provide a template for covering such episodes—the 1996 Ozone Disco fire which killed 162; the Manor Hotel in 2001 with 75 casualties; and the 74 dead in the Kentex tragedy in 2015. These cases should have trained journalists to quickly go to the question of the cause of fire and to take statements about compliance with healthy skepticism.
Unfortunately, the NCCC Mall tragedy did not reveal these lessons learned in the reports.
The press failed to dig deeper into the issue despite clear cues early on in the coverage, such as some survivors’ claims of faulty fire safety systems.
Instead of initiating interviews or seeking out independent sources to investigate the cause of the fire, reports merely recorded press releases or statements made during press conferences or interviews.
An Inquirer report on December 28 carried the assertion of Honey Fritz Alagano, Davao’s Fire Marshall, that safety officials found no violations during their inspection of the NCCC Mall. The same report quoted Mayor Sara Duterte’s declaration during a press conference that as far as her office was concerned, the shopping mall was safety compliant because it was given a business permit—a document requiring fire safety clearance. The report did not bother to verify the validity of the business permit. The report also cited extensively in all of three paragraphs the defense made by Thea Padua, a spokesperson for the NCCC Mall, who insisted that the mall had enough fire exits and fire safety apparatus such as fire extinguishers and sprinklers. But the reporter did not ask Padua to explain why these systems failed and why so many were trapped and could not be reached. The headline highlighted the mayor’s claim, a spin that the claim had been verified. (“Davao mayor: Shopping mall passed fire safety checks”)
Satisfied with recording these statements, no one bothered to check with other agencies or review documents related to building permits. Unless verified, these statements were self-serving. If the press was not willing to investigate further on its own, then it should have waited for other more authoritative sources, as by then, and reported in the same article, Mayor Duterte had already announced that a multi-agency task force would investigate and report their findings about the failed responsibilities for fire safety.
On January 2, MindaNews revealed the findings of the Interagency Anti-Arson Task Force. Jerry Candido, Task Force spokesperson and Fire Superintendent, told reporters in a teleconference, that the NCCC Mall Davao and SSI failed to comply with fire safety requirements, corroborating earlier claims by survivors that the mall’s alarm and sprinkler systems failed during the fire—a point which NCCC administrators had vehemently denied. In addition, the mall’s fire exits were also not compliant with the Fire Code of the Philippines as these were not heat- and smoke-proof, the task force said. MindaNews focused its reporting on the findings of the investigation, ignoring the statements about compliance so eagerly recorded in other reports. (“Task force: NCCC Mall, SSI failed to comply safety requirements”). The Bulletin, Inquirer and Star also carried the same information in their reports on January 2, 4 and 6, respectively.
Also on January 2, media reports said the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA), the government agency which oversees special economic zones, had suspended the two firms for being remiss in complying with PEZA’s safety standards. NCCC Mall’s registration as an economic zone and SSI as a business process outsourcing company were suspended after the deadly blaze. The suspension order was signed by PEZA Director General Charito Plaza on December 29.