MANILA, Philippines – A fire rapidly swept through a budget hotel in the northern Philippines early Sunday burning to death 15 people — several crammed in bathrooms where they fled in panic. Nine of the victims were nursing students in town to take a licensing exam.
Some firefighters were moved to tears after finding the badly burned bodies in the upper floors of the five-story hotel and offered prayers before retrieving the remains, fire investigator Daniel Abana said. The fire raged for eight hours and gutted the Bed and Breakfast Pension House in Cagayan province's capital of Tuguegarao city.
The students who survived the fire went on to take the exam on Sunday, including one who showed up in slippers and sleeping clothes.
Relatives grieved at a morgue where remains of victims, 14 burned beyond recognition, were brought. Some fainted as body bags were brought into a funeral parlor.
"Their families spent fortunes to send these children to school only to see them end that way," Abana told The Associated Press by telephone.
The fire started on the ground floor, apparently fueled by car tires and other combustible materials stored in an automobile parts store. Paint cans also may have been in the building, which was recently renovated, Abana said.
Dozens of guests, roused by the commotion, were rescued by firefighters and police out of the still-smoldering building through the main gate and fire escapes. Some managed to escape on their own but others may have panicked and got trapped by the flames, Cagayan police chief Mao Aplasca said.
The dead included nine nursing students. The rest were members of the family that owned the hotel, including three children, Aplasca said.
Many of the dead had crammed in bathrooms on the top two floors. One victim had a foot stuck out of a window in a desperate attempt to survive, Abana said.
At least 12 nursing students were taken to hospitals with minor burns. The building was still smoldering when firefighters broke in and scrambled to search for the 15 victims, police said.
"It's so close to Christmas, we wept when we saw their bodies," Abana told The AP.
A nursing college instructor, Romeo Opido, told police that about 36 nursing students from nearby provinces were at the hotel in Tuguegarao, about 215 miles (350 kilometers) north of Manila. At least 27 escaped and 9 were missing, he said before the bodies were discovered.
Aileen Gonzales, an aunt of one of the students believed to have perished in the fire, said what happened was a twin disaster because her nephew died just days before Christmas and her family had hoped she would pass the nursing exam and work abroad.
Many Filipino students from middle-income and impoverished families have taken nursing courses in recent years in the hope of landing relatively high-paying jobs abroad. Their massive departure has alarmed officials in the poor Southeast Asian country, which sorely lacks medical workers and hospitals.
Cagayan fire official Neil Caranguian said investigators have not determined the cause of the blaze. Faulty electrical equipment, overcrowding and weak enforcement of safety regulations have been blamed for many deadly fires in the Philippines.