MANILA, Philippines – An inferno at a three-story clothing store in the southern Philippines early Wednesday killed at least 16 employees, most of whom were asleep, officials said.
The fire in the Butuan city store broke out at 3:55 a.m. and raged for five hours. Firefighters and police scouring the ravaged building found 16 bodies and were looking for more, said police Chief Inspector Reynante Sibayton.
Store employee Mylene Tulo, who escaped with two co-workers, said she was roused from sleep as the fire spread rapidly in the third-floor office where they slept. Amid the inferno and yells for help, she managed to dash out with her colleagues. They sustained minor burns on their arms.
"We wanted to rouse others from sleep, but the fire was already too strong," a stunned Tulo said.
Relatives and friends, most of them in shock and tears, starting to gather in search of loved ones in front of the building, where Sibayton stood before 16 body bags with the victims' remains.
He said that investigators were trying to determine what sparked the fire.
The building in the southern Mindanao region was a theater before being turned into a commercial center with several stores, including the Novo Jeans and Shirts, where most of the victims died.
Those who died were recovered from the third floor near the fire escape.
At least 21 employees were sleeping at the store when the fire broke out, said a store supervisor who refused to give his name.
Many stores allow their employees to sleep over, especially those with faraway homes.