It took all of four days for Pasay City Fire Marshal Paul Pili to determine the cause of the massive blaze that gutted a big portion of the Star City complex in the early hours of Wednesday, Oct. 2 last week.
“Categorically, this was arson,” Pili declared on Sunday, after his office’s inspection of the charred remains of the popular amusement park. Somebody had deliberately set Star City on fire: “In our mind, in the mind of our investigators, there was arson.”
The fire official based his conclusion on what he said was the discovery of gasoline and the initial finding that one of the tenants, a certain Mr. Wong, went inside the compound before the fire broke out, along with some men carrying sacks of cotton.
The visitors did not sign the visitors’ logbook, said Pili. The fire started in a stockroom where cotton-filled stuffed toys and game prizes were stored.
By the time the blaze was finally put under control around 4 a.m. (with some 70 fire trucks rushing to the scene), around 80 percent of the Star City building, which housed over 30 rides, was destroyed. It also damaged the building that housed the Manila Broadcasting Company, and suspended the operations of dzRH, the country’s oldest radio station.
Pili said there was gasoline “in an area where it should not necessarily be.” He also noted charred wall clippings that suggested that some areas in the amusement park were deliberately set on fire at the same time.
Those details may well be within Pili’s purview to disclose to the public even at this early phase of the investigation. The rest of his discussion, though, veered more toward the rashly speculative.
The failure to sign the logbook, for instance, was, according to Pili, highly suspicious: “Bakit hindi nag-logbook? Nag-logbook siya (referring to Wong) pero hindi niya ni-logbook mga kasama niya.”
Now, why would Pili even be raising this question in public, when it’s the job of his office to look for the answer? Obviously, the investigation has yet to reach any conclusive findings about the mysterious lack of logbook entries; have all other motives been eliminated other than deceit and perhaps criminal conspiracy? Could there be a perfectly honest and aboveboard explanation for the oversight?
Basic questions that should be answered by any halfway decent probe, and yet here was Pili, irresponsibly arguing the angle in the court of public opinion.
As for motive, the fire city chief was not about to be discreet, either. He floated the idea that financial troubles on the part of Star City’s owners could be behind the alleged arson: “We will look into kung sila ba ay nalulugi o hindi. Doon makikita yung motibo kasi mahirap i-pinpoint kung sino nagsunog.”
Asked specifically if he was, as the ABS-CBN news report put it, “implying that there is a possibility that the officers of the Star City Corporation may have started the fire, he answered affirmatively.”
And yet, incredibly, “Pili, however, stressed that authorities have yet to obtain the amusement park owners’ testimony.”
No wonder the Elizalde group — Star City is part of the conglomerate chaired by Fred J. Elizalde — called out the virtual trial by publicity.
“We feel that it was inappropriate, to say the least, to release statements to media first regarding arson as the cause of fire when the investigation is not clearly concluded and before taking up such matter with Star City’s management, the principal party concerned,” it said.
It also offered answers to the initial suspicions raised by the fire bureau. The gasoline inside the complex, it said, was needed to operate the Bumper Boat ride, which was beside the Star Games where the blaze was said to have begun. Bringing cotton inside the park was “not unusual” either, as these were used as filling for stuffed toys that were among the game prizes.
“We are not aware of any motive, including financial gain, that would induce the commission [of] arson [especially] on the part of Star City as the business is profitable and a bumper Christmas season was expected,” the group added. “The circumstances cited in the media cannot therefore be conclusive that there was arson.”
Perhaps realizing the need for a more objective and well-founded look into the situation, the national headquarters of the Bureau of Fire Protection has stepped into the picture, directing the conduct of an “exhaustive investigation (technical and forensic analysis)” into the fire.
As well it should. Because at this point, what can only be concluded from Pili’s loose-lipped behavior is how slapdash and careless this investigation is being run.
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