As the fire that has engulfed one of Cebu City’s more notable commercial landmarks continues to rage for the second day, investigators are looking into possible violations by the management of the Gaisano-run Metro Ayala department store at the Ayala Center Cebu.
Supt. Ronaldo Orbeta, deputy director for operations of the Bureau of Fire Protection in Central Visayas (BFP-7) and ground commander in the firefighting effort, said they received reports that Metro Ayala’s sprinklers and fire alarm did not function when the blaze was first reported at the establishment’s third floor at 9:44 p.m. on Friday.
“We’re conducting an investigation to determine whether or not there were violations. We will also invite the persons who were present in the storage room (on the third floor) where the fire started,” he said in an interview.
Orbeta said they have yet to establish the cause of the blaze that destroyed five floors of the eight-level establishment. The fire department also still has to determine the extent and cost of the damage.
The Metro Ayala blaze, the first big fire to hit Cebu barely a week into the new year, has triggered several other concerns, including health hazards resulting from the thick haze of smoke that affected areas surrounding the Ayala Center Cebu mall complex at the Cebu Business Park, Cebu’s premier commercial district; a major traffic jam in major thoroughfares around the affected area, especially along Barangays Lahug, Mabolo and Hippodromo. (see separate stories on pages 2 and 4)
Authorities said it was fortunate no one was hurt in the incident.
“What we can say for now is that there are no injured persons or any casualty due to the fire,” Orbeta said.
Lawyer Vincent Tomaneng, legal officer and spokesperson of Vicsal Development Corporation, which operates the Metro Gaisano group, said they welcomed any investigation conducted by the BFP-7.
“We will wait for the outcome of the investigation. Part of our job is to cooperate with any investigation,” he told Cebu Daily News.
Tomaneng refused to comment on reports that the department store’s sprinklers and fire alarm did not function.
“Let’s not speculate,” he said.
Vicsal is a private family corporation of a branch of the Gaisano family who owns and operates a chain of department stores and supermarkets in the Visayas and Luzon under the Metro brand, including Metro Ayala, which opened in 1994; Metro Colon, the flagship store that opened in 1982; Super Metro Mandaue (1994); Metro Plaza Toledo (2009); Metro Market in Naga City; Metro Market! Market! at the Bonifacio Global City (BGC); and the Metro stores in Legazpi City (Albay), Lucena City (Quezon province), Angeles City (Pampanga), Alabang Town Center, Binondo, and Maasin (Southern Leyte).
Jack Gaisano, one of the children of Vicsal founder Vicente and Sally Gaisano, arrived at the fire scene shortly after the fire started and stayed until the morning.
Cebu City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office (CCDRRMO) chief Nagiel Bañacia said that Jack Gaisano and his family arrived at the fire scene at around 10 p.m. Friday to check the extent of the damage. “We talked about operations … what we need so that we can be better in our operations, what else can they do to help put out the fire. The family, including their children, are here to monitor what is happening. They are concerned about what happened,” said Bañacia in a phone interview on Saturday night.
Bañacia said they discussed the need for more fire ladders and flashlights.
CDN saw Jack Gaisano wearing a white shirt and green short pants at the entrance area of Metro Ayala, monitoring the progress of the firefighters sometime around 2 a.m. on Saturday.
The Metro Retail website said Jack Gaisano is the director of Metro Retail Stores Group, Inc. He previously held the position of chairman and president from 2003 to 2011.
Contained but not under control
The fire at Metro Ayala has been “contained in the area” but was still not under control as of 7 p.m. on Saturday, about 21 hours since it first broke out.
The fire had not spread to the adjacent Ayala Center Cebu although the mall remained closed and the employees evacuated.
A haze alert was issued by Cebu City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (CDRRMO) chief Nagiel Bañacia on Saturday morning due to the smoke from the ongoing fire.
Face masks were likewise distributed by the Cebu City Health Department (CCHD) to people who pass by the street near the fire scene.
Nearby establishments and homes were advised to take some precautionary measures, and to temporarily evacuate to avoid the thick smoke.
“Those with cardiorespiratory problems may need to temporarily evacuate. I would also like to inform people that toxic fumes can cause cancer,” Bañacia said.
Two jackhammers and a crane were used to drill into the department store’s walls and roofing system to give ventilation to the building and to allow the smoke and heat to escape.
The fire broke out at 9:44 p.m. from the storage room of the toy department located on the third floor, according to Orbeta.
The fire quickly spread to the upper floors, which housed the furniture and appliance departments and food court, and into the second floor, which housed the garments sections.
The department store’s two basements, which housed the grocery and the household items sections, and ground floor (where the main entrance is located), were spared from the flame.
After hours of fighting the blaze, BFP-7, at 8:45 a.m. on Saturday, decided to raise the fire alarm into Task Force Bravo, which meant that all fire stations from Danao City in the north to Naga City in the south were being asked to respond to the fire alarm.
“Our problem was we had limited breathing apparatus and there was zero visibility inside the department store, which was an enclosed space,” Orbita explained.
“We are currently working on drilling holes on the building’s walls to relieve the smoke and heat,” he added.
Orbita said they expected to completely put out the fire in two to three days.
“Once we will be able to ventilate the building, firefighters will be able to penetrate it,” he said.
Bañacia, who also led the city’s teams of government and volunteer firefighters battling the Metro Ayala fire, said that at least 50 fire trucks responded to the fire alarm since Friday evening.
“We tried our best to contain the fire so that it won’t spread to adjacent establishments,” he said.
Bañacia said there was a possibility that the Metro Ayala sprinklers did not function when the fire broke out.
“Sprinkling systems are installed in enclosed areas so that when it detects heat, it will automatically splash water over the place. If the Metro Ayala spinklers functioned, the damage could not have been this bad,” he noted. /with reports from Fe Marie Dumaboc and Benjie B. Talisic