HOTEL fire in Manila suburb kills at least 70 people

Saturday, August 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

QUEZON CITY, Philippines (AP) _ A hotel in a Manila suburb went up in flames Saturday, killing at least 70 people and injuring 54 others, including some who were taking part in a religious conference sponsored by a U.S.-based evangelical group.

Officials said security bars on the windows and inadequate fire escape routes may have contributed to the deaths at the Manor Hotel, where almost all of the victims died of smoke inhalation and suffocation. All the casualties were believed to be Filipino.

Chief Supt. Francisco Senot, head of the Bureau of Fire Protection, said the cause of the blaze was probably a short circuit in the ceiling of a third-floor stockroom.

Firefighters found victims piled up in bathrooms, where they apparently had tried to escape the smoke from the pre-dawn blaze. Many were still in their bedclothes.

``Without a doubt there would have been more people rescued if there had been no iron grills on the windows,'' Quezon City Mayor Feliciano Belmonte said. ``There were people hanging out on the windows crying out to be rescued.''

Two people survived by jumping from the six-story building, including one who landed on a concrete canopy.

Bureau of Fire Protection officials said it was the deadliest hotel fire ever in the Philippines, and the worst such disaster since a 1996 discotheque blaze killed 160 people.

The hotel had 236 registered guests at the time of the fire, police said. Of those, 172 were there to take part in a Christian crusade sponsored by the Irving, Texas-based Don Clowers Ministries. Several Americans came for the ``Destiny Conference,'' but no foreigners were believed to be among the casualties.

Police lined up 66 bodies in four rows at a nearby basketball court, covered them with straw mats, took fingerprints and put them in body bags that a priest sprinkled with holy water.

Eleanor Schofield, of the Philippines, shrieked when she saw the bodies of her boyfriend and 17-year-old daughter after earlier finding her 7-year-old son dead at a hospital. They had been staying at the hotel while she was out of town; she rushed back after hearing of the fire.

``Lord, Lord, they did not leave anyone for me,'' she cried. ``I was hoping to see them alive, but they are all dead.''

Eugene Schwebler, 60, a Clowers follower from Wisconsin, said he tried to flee his fourth-floor room but heat turned him back. To access the fire escape, he had to pull an air conditioner out of the wall.

``I don't know how many came out,'' he said. ``The lights went out and we heard people screaming.''

Schwebler said he thought the fire started in a restaurant on the third floor, which appeared to have sustained the worst damage. A security guard in an adjacent building said he saw smoke coming from an exhaust fan shortly before 4 a.m.

The concrete structure was apparently built in the late 1970s and may have been damaged by fire before, local officials said. It was apparently not originally designed as a hotel _ there were no windows on the rear _ and had some permanent occupants.

Many fire exits were blocked, locked, or led to dead ends, and there appeared to be no fire alarms or emergency lights, said Danilo Cabrera, of the Bureau of Fire Protection.

The ornate white iron bars that covered many of the windows are a common security device in Manila. Firefighters were able to save 18 people by sawing through the bars.

Belmonte said the city had warned the hotel about its inadequate fire safety. Interior Secretary Joel Lina said authorities were investigating for fire code violations. The Quezon City fire marshal was relieved of his duties immediately.

At the religious conference Saturday, about 8,000 people waved their arms in the air, singing and praying for victims and their families. Though the Philippines is predominantly Roman Catholic, evangelical ministries are often popular among the rural poor.

Clowers, who was in Manila with his wife and son, asked for donations for the victims and said he would cover some expenses related to the fire, but he did not give details.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo visited survivors in one hospital, then tried to console relatives of victims.

``She told me that I can be assured of assistance from the government, but she did not specify what help,'' said Purita Legazpi, whose cousin died in the fire.