Construction worker William Bahao was sound asleep in preparation for another long day at work when the loud crackling noise of the roof woke him up.
In just seconds, the multi-level bunkhouse where he and 162 other construction workers stayed crumbled and pinned a number of them.
Bahao, who slept at the third deck of the structure made of metal poles and plywood, found himself under a pile of debris, but managed to crawl out from under the rubble.
But some of his coworkers were not as lucky. While most survived the collapse, five of their coworkers did not make it, while four others are in hospitals fighting for their life.
“Nagtuo gyud ko nga mamatay ko, apan nanlimbasog lang ko nga makagawas gikan sa mga tubo (I thought I was going to die, but I just tried my best to get out from under the metal poles),” said the 58-year-old native of Guihulngan City in Negros Oriental, who has been working as a utility personnel of the Cebu-based J.E. Abraham C. Lee Construction and Development Inc.
Bahao said he heard his colleagues shouting for help, but he could not go to aid them since he was also in severe pain, particularly his back that was hit by the metal poles.
Bahao, a Marian devotee who had been keeping a small image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a rosary inside the bag that he had used as his pillow, lost his bag but he still considered it as a miracle that he survived.
Based on the report of the Cebu City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (CCDRRMO), five construction workers were pinned to death, four were critically injured, while 154 others sustained minor injuries when the four-level bunkhouse in Barangay Lahug, Cebu City, collapsed at 2:57 a.m. on Tuesday.
Three of those who were badly injured were rushed to the Cebu City Medical Center while one was brought to the Perpetual Succour Hospital.
It took rescuers close to six hours to bring to safety the survivors and recover all the fatalities from the rubbles.
“It could have been longer if the bunkhouse was made of concrete materials. It just happened that the foundations were all made of metal poles so many workers managed to breathe,” said Nagiel Bañacia, chief of the CCDRRMO.
The next step, he said, is to determine what caused the bunkhouse to crumble.
“We focus the investigation on the question of why the structure collapsed,” Bañacia told reporters in a press briefing after the search and rescue operation, which started at 3 a.m. and ended at 8:45 a.m.
Those who died were identified as Iveen Villarin, 23, and a resident of the City of Naga in Cebu; Francisco Diapera, 43, of Toledo City, Cebu; Carlos Caliwa, 61, of Manjuyod, Negros Oriental; Crisenciano Silomen, 57, of Trinidad, Bohol; and Jason Bacalso, 22, of the City of Naga, Cebu.
They were working on different construction projects undertaken by J.E. Abraham C. Lee Construction and Development Inc. in Cebu City.
In an official statement posted in its Facebook page, the construction firm assured it would shoulder all the medical, burial and other expenses for those who perished and those who were injured in the incident.
“We are very saddened by this unfortunate incident. Our priority has been to attend to the injured, especially to their medical needs. We have provided assistance to their families and the other workers not hurt; as well as special care and arrangements for the fatalities and their families,” the contractor said.
J.E. Abraham C. Lee Construction and Development Inc. said it will also conduct its own probe to determine why the bunkhouse collapsed.
“We are now investigating the incident to determine its cause and the circumstances that led to it. We will cooperate with the authorities in their own investigation,”
“While safety has always been the primary focus in our operations, we have called for a review of our safety policy and practices in all our project sites.
As we take full responsibility over this incident, we shall continue to serve the community as a responsible contractor,” it added.
Kaye Vergara, the human resource officer of the construction firm, earlier said the company will shoulder all the expenses of the casualties.
“We will take care of all their needs,” she told reporters.
Engr. Josefa Ylanan, head of the Office of the Building Official (OBO) in Cebu City, immediately ordered the suspension of all projects undertaken by J.E. Abraham C. Lee Construction and Development Inc. following Tuesday’s incident.
Cebu City Legal Officer Joseph Bernaldez said they found out that the contractor has no business permit since 2001, and that it also failed to secure another permit to construct a bunkhouse.
“Under the Building Code, contractors have to secure permits for its bunkhouses. The way you look at it, its bunkhouse is not really for workers, but a storage room for construction materials,” he said.
Bernaldez urged the Department of Labor and Employment in Central Visayas (DOLE-7) to determine if the contractor has complied with safety requirements, such as providing their workers with protective gears when they were inside the bunkhouse.
Both the OBO and DOLE-7 are conducting separate probes to determine if violations were committed by the J.E. Abraham C. Lee Construction.
Cyril Ticao, officer in charge of the DOLE-7, said he sent a seven-man team to the construction company to ensure that it would make good its promise to shoulder all the expenses for the casualties.
“We will check the conditions of the victims. They must be well taken cared of by the contractor,” he said in an interview.
But Ticao said he could not issue a stoppage order since the structure that collapsed was the bunkhouse where the workers stayed and not the construction site itself.
“They were not constructing any building there, so there’s nothing to stop,” he said.
“This is an isolated case. I think this is the first time in Cebu that a bunkhouse collapsed,” he added.
Lesson to be learned
Cebu City Councilor Jerry Guardo, chairman of the committee on infrastructure and urban planning of the Cebu City Council, said he would call the construction firm’s officials to a meeting, along with those from DOLE-7 and OBO, to determine what went wrong, and how to prevent similar incidents in the future.
“Our mayor (Tomas Osmeña) is very particular with regards to the safety of ongoing constructions in Cebu City. We need to come up with strict measures on building bunkhouses,” he said. “We did not expect this to happen, but this incident serves as a lesson for us,” he added.
After inspecting the site where the bunkhouse collapsed, Guardo said he noticed that the foundations of the structure were not buried on the ground to stabilize it.
“We need to investigate this,” he said.
Butch Abaya, project engineer of J.E. Abraham C. Lee Construction, said the bunkhouse was constructed in September 2017 so that their workers will have a place to stay at night.
While the structure’s foundations were not buried on the ground, he said they were supported by metal braces and clamps.
“That has been the standard practice for bunkhouses,” he explained.
Abaya maintained the bunkhouse was stable and that they would also need to find out why it collapsed.
“This has been here for some time now, and yet nothing happened until this incident,” he said.
J.E. Abraham C. Lee Construction also owns another bunkhouse in Barangay Guadalupe, Cebu City.
Amancio Aguhob Jr., the security guard on duty at the bunkhouse in Barangay Lahug on Tuesday, said they noticed that the structure would sway whenever workers occupied it.
“Tubo ra man gud mao nga mag uyog-uyog gyud siya (Since it’s made of metal tubes, there were times that the bunkhouse swayed),” he said in an interview.
At past 2 a.m. on Tuesday, while he was at the guardhouse located near the bunkhouse, Aguhob said he noticed that the bunkhouse leaned towards one side.
“Nahinanok sa pagkatulog ang mga tawo mao nga daghan ang nadisgrasya (The workers were sound asleep when the incident happened. That was why there were many casualties),” Aguhob said.
In August 2016, J.E. Abraham C. Lee Construction was also involved in a controversy when its 22-year-old worker died after a concrete wall and steel piles fell on him while working at a condominium project in Barangay Labangon, Cebu City.
The worker was welding a large steel beam along the perimeter of an excavation when the wall collapsed and crushed him to death.
DOLE-7 ordered the construction firm to suspend its work on the condominium project, citing a number of lapses such as its lack of a safety and health program for its workers and the victim’s non-coverage of social benefits.
J.E. Abraham C. Lee Construction was eventually allowed to resume its operations. /with reports from Fe Marie Dumaboc and Futch Anthony Inso