Remember 1991’s garment factory fire
With 72 persons dead—the majority of them women—in last week’s fire in a slipper factory in Valenzuela, I could not help but recall the fire in 1991 that claimed the lives of 19 women workers in a garment factory in Mandaluyong. I interviewed some of the survivors and next of kin of the victims and wrote a Sunday Inquirer Magazine feature article (“Death by Fire at a Garments Factory”) on that tragedy.
That fire was not the last of factory fires and factory tragedies. I would again write a magazine story about the deaths in a paper factory (“There’s Blood in Your Paper”) where workers either got swallowed up in vats of paper pulp or fell into them. Somehow I was allowed into the paper mill to see for myself the cauldrons of death and figure out how the series of unfortunate events took place. Geez, I thought while I was there, I hope I don’t slip into one of these heaving pools of goo. I wasn’t wearing proper footwear, you see.
With “Valenzuela’s 72” on my mind, I dug up my 1991 magazine piece and read the opening quote from a protest song: “Si Lina ay isang magandang dalaga/ Panggabi sa isang pabrika…/Nang muling makita, hubad at patay na/ Halina, halina/ Damitan ang bangkay at sa ating puso/ Hayaang humimlay si Lina…”
Was it Lina? I wrote then. Was it she in a tabloid’s banner photo of a severed head with half a face being poked at by firemen, policemen, media men and grieving relatives?
In the early morning hours of March 14, 1991, shortly after the fire at Edral Garments in Mandaluyong was put out, firemen and police, with the help of survivors, came up with a tentative list of those who had perished in the blaze. The initial roster contained the names of 19 young women, two of whom were listed merely as “Lina” and “Merly.” Later their full names were made known, but these didn’t help to establish which names belonged to which heap of crumbling bones and ashes.
Anything that looked like the remains of a human being were right away hauled to the nearest funeral parlor, there to be poked at some more in the hope that the identities would be established. The shape of the teeth, a finger, an earring perhaps, could provide answers…
The fire at the Edral Garments factory was the worst in a long, long time. The extent of material destruction was small compared to the fires that broke out almost every other day during Metro Manila’s hottest season. In that March 14, 1991, blaze, only Edral, housed in a former residential building turned into a small factory that sat on less than 1,000 square meters, was razed. Neighboring structures on both sides suffered only minor damage. And yet in Edral’s few square meters of building space so many warm bodies were instantly incinerated.
Of the 28 garment workers sleeping that fateful night inside the Edral compound, only nine managed to escape, and with great difficulty. The lone security guard, Noel Espenida, managed to save only so many lives. Excerpts from his statement to the police (translated from Filipino): “I was seated near the gate when all of a sudden I heard the sound of a faint explosion which seemed to have come from the basement. I checked the circuit breaker near the stairs and found it cold…. Not content, I went to the front of the building to peep through the basement screen but I could not see anything because the jackets with foam in them were piled high, blocking the view… Then I saw smoke coming from the pile of jackets, I ran toward the door but I saw black smoke.
“I wanted to go to the basement but the fire was getting bigger and the only thing I could think of was to destroy the wall in the basement so that the stay-ins who were asleep could come out. I was able to destroy a portion and some of the employees were able to get out. The second portion I could not destroy as the wall was hard with concrete on the other side where some 28 employees were sleeping and I could hear them shouting and crying. I tried hard to open the other rooms and I was able to do that. I yelled at them to come out but no one came out and the fire suddenly became big. I could no longer stand the heat so I ran out of the gate and yelled for help.”
Four days after the fire, a survivor, Teodora Udtujan, 26, a native of Samar, upon the suggestion of the Edral lawyer, for the second time made a statement to the police that employees on overtime (working till 10 p.m.) were allowed to stay for the night because it was too risky for women to go home late….
So much for the Edral garment tragedy. Didn’t we learn of a really massive one that happened in Bangladesh recently? It wasn’t a fire but a building collapsing and killing more than 1,000 garment workers. But that country has had its share of garment factory fires, too.
The garments industry is very much tied with the history of feminism. For one thing, the majority of garment workers are women. For another, International Women’s Day (March 8) began as a commemoration of the tragic end 104 years ago in New York City of 175 women textile workers who leaped from the 18th floor of a burning building which housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
At that time, most of the women workers were from migrant families who had just arrived from Europe. When fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the women were trapped inside because management had ordered all doors locked to prevent the poor women from stealing. (See online the black-and-white photos of that 1911 tragedy.)
A few days after the fire, thousands of women marched in silence on the streets of New York to bury their sisters. A documentary, “The Fire on the 18th Floor,” is a must-see for women garment workers, and all others who toil in factories.
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