By KIER EDISON C. BELLEZA
CEBU CITY – It might take two to three days before firefighters can control the fire that hit Metro Gaisano Ayala Cebu here on Friday evening, a fire official said today.
In a statement, Metro Retail Stores Group Inc. (MRSGI) said smoke was seen coming out of the third floor stock room for toys at around 9:30 p.m. of January 5.
The fire has been ongoing for more than 15 hours as of 1:00 p.m. Saturday. It reached Task Force Bravo, which corresponds to a seventh alarm, at 8:45 a.m.
Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) Central Visayas Assistant Regional Director for Operations Supt. Rolando Orbeta said the fire fighters were having a hard time penetrating the fire scene because the building is enclosed, adding that they have limited breathing apparatus.
“There is zero visibility inside and it’s really hot. What we did was to hammer portions of the façade of the building to let the smoke and heat out because once it is ventilated, from there we can penetrate,” Orbeta said.
“When it comes to fire trucks and water resources, we do not have a problem. In fact, the Metropolitan Cebu Water District has diverted its concentration to this area,” he added.
All customers and personnel were safely evacuated, according to mall management. It helped that the fire broke out just when the mall was closing for the night.
Sr. Supt. Samuel Tadeo, BFP-7 chief, in a Facebook message said no one was trapped inside the building “since the evacuation that was done was good.”
Orbeta said the BFP cannot give an assurance that the fire can be immediately put out as there is fire danger in the area, so crews were continuing to take a very cautious approach.
“What we can assure our people is that we are doing our very best to put out the fire, we are trying our best to stop it in 24 hours,” he added.
The fire official, however, said the fire has been ‘contained’ within its current perimeter.
The cause of the fire was still unknown, as of this posting.
“We still have to conduct an investigation. We need to invite personnel from the mall, we need to get statements first,” Orbeta told reporters.
There were reports that said the fire alarms in the mall did not function when the blaze broke out, but Orbeta said “that we have to verify that first, we need to wait for the outcome of the investigation.”
Cebu City Police Office Director Sr. Supt Joel Doria, in a separate interview, said policemen were immediately fielded to back up the fire fighters and mall safety personnel.
“This was done to avoid instances of looting and maybe a bigger damage to properties,” Doria said.
Doria said some policemen were also deployed to man the traffic.
Doria assured the police, on their part, will stay in the area until the fire has been put out.
The City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (CCDRRMO) also raised a haze alert for the Cebu Business Park and its nearby areas as smoke continued to billow from the mall, as of this posting.
“Everyone living at or staying near Cebu Business Park, who have cardio-vascular problem, are advised to temporarily evacuate or transfer to a safer area due to heavy hazardous or toxic fumes from the ongoing fire,” said CCDRRMO Chief Nagiel Bañacia.
As of 3 a.m. Saturday, Bañacia said the fourth floor of the department store had collapsed.
Vincent Tomaneng, Corporate Secretary and Chief Legal Counsel of MRSGI, said they will take care of the employees whose work has been affected due to the fire incident “and will make the necessary arrangements in due time.”
Tomaneng said the Metro Ayala and Ayala Center Cebu Emergency Brigade Teams have been closely working with the BFP and other emergency response teams to manage the situation.
Mall management thanked “the firefighters, volunteers, government personnel, its employees, concerned citizens, and all those who have helped and assisted in putting out the fire.”
Cebu City earned its prestigious title of being the “Queen City of the South” because of its empowered commercial and cultural arena, among many other sources of pride.
For majority of the urban population, the opening of Ayala Center Cebu in 1994 marked a significant boost in the city’s industry.
On an average day, more than 85,000 people visit the mall, with the figure increasing up to 135,000 on weekends.