Fire guts Comelec


By EDU PUNAY and SHEILA CRISOSTOMO (The Philippine Star) – Sabotage may be behind the fire that destroyed the Commission on Elections (Comelec) building in Intramuros, Manila, which was mysteriously deserted by its own battle-ready Marine security detail shortly before the fire started early Sunday.

The fire, which occurred two months before the May elections, destroyed millions of pesos worth of computer units intended for the botched poll automation as well as records related to the disputed 2004 presidential and senatorial elections. No one was reported injured in the blaze.

Manila fire marshal Senior Superintendent Pablito Cordeta said the Marines guarding the building would be asked to explain why they did not immediately call firefighters when the blaze started. The guards would also be asked to explain why they deserted their posts.

“They were supposed to secure the premises very tightly at this time,” Cordeta said.

Police Officer 2 Ronaldo Asis of the Special Action Force, who was manning a nearby security post, had to run to the fire station on A. Soriano St. (formerly Aduana) to alert the firefighters. The fire station is roughly 100 meters from the Comelec building.

Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos said the fire will not affect the May 14 elections because the materials and documents needed including the list of voters are kept elsewhere.

“There is nothing for our countrymen to be worried about. Our list of voters is safe in another building nearby,” Abalos told local radio. “Not even one paper there (in the burned building) can affect the coming elections.”

He said the burned building was “virtually a firetrap.”

Malacañang called for a thorough and speedy investigation of the incident amid suspicions of arson.

“The local fire office and police must quickly conduct and “finish a thorough investigation into the fire because we would want to erase all doubts or suspicions and get to the bottom of the incident,” Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said.

“The leadership of the Comelec is on top of the situation and we are taking the word of Chairman Abalos that this incident will have the least if not nil impact on the conduct of the May elections,” Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said.

The razed Comelec building is at the corner of Postigo and Arzobispo streets. Most Comelec offices, including the chairman’s, are housed in the nearby Palacio del Gobernador.

Faulty electrical wiring is also being eyed as cause of the five-and-a-half hour fire.

Senior Fire Officer 2 Wilson Tana said the blaze began at 12:51 a.m. inside the General Services Division office at the ground floor of the building.

As many as 20 fire trucks maneuvered through the narrow, cobblestone streets, trying to get closer to the burning building whose roof had collapsed due to the blaze.

Suspicions sparked

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz said there was “something fishy” about the Comelec fire. “How suspicious, how convenient, how devious,” he said.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to expect an honest and credible elections,” Cruz told The STAR in a phone interview. “It is so hard to trust the administration.”

He said questions regarding the legitimacy of President Arroyo would be harder to address following the loss of many important documents and evidence to the fire.

“What are those internal records? Your guess is as good as mine,” Cruz said. “I hope those who feel the same like me would be proven wrong.”

All 265 House of Representatives seats, half of the 24 Senate seats, and more than 17,500 local positions will be contested in the May 14 elections – considered crucial because the opposition could impeach Mrs. Arroyo if it wins enough House seats.

Two opposition attempts to impeach Arroyo failed after her House allies, who hold the majority, blocked vote-rigging and corruption complaints filed against her.

The Genuine Opposition said the fire would pave the way for massive cheating in May.

“This regime plays so dirty. Knowing that its candidates will lose in the elections, it had to do something to stop it,” GO interim campaign manager San Juan Mayor Jose Victor Ejercito said.

“From charter change to the burning of the Comelec, the intention is so obvious,” Ejercito said.

GO spokesman Adel Tamano said the opposition was worried about the fire’s effect on pending cases filed with the poll body including the disqualification cases against senatorial candidates Joselito “Peter” Cayetano and Theodore Aquino. The two were believed to be working for the administration to spoil the votes for GO candidates Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano and Rep. Benigno Aquino III.

“Sure we are concerned that important documents and evidence may have been lost and that this may be used as an excuse to delay the decision-making in important cases,” Tamano said. “Of course what is important is, hopefully, that no one was harmed in the fire.”

‘Not us’

Abalos lashed back at the opposition for insinuating that the burning of the Comelec was the handiwork of the Arroyo administration.

“The fertility of the imagination of these people is too much. Their minds are too fertile over such trivial matters,” Abalos said.

Among the documents destroyed in the fire were personnel records and 2004 elections statistics. “The good Lord knows the truth,” he added.

Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, for his part, said the gutted building housed the offices of the education and information division, executive director, deputy executive director, deputy director for operations, deputy executive director for administration, security, motorpool, statistics, auditor and the committee on gun ban. The fire also displaced around 500 employees.

“Based on initial reports, it’s because of faulty electrical wiring. But it is still under investigation,” Sarmiento said.

He said many employees lost money and personal belongings to the fire. Some of them helplessly watched their office go up in smoke.

Sarmiento stressed that most of the Comelec’s supplies and election paraphernalia are safe because they are kept at the Maxilite building in Paco, Manila.

For his part, Team Unity senatorial candidate Prospero Pichay said he expects the opposition to capitalize on the incident to renew their accusations that the administration plans to cheat in May.

“Fire is a serious matter. We should investigate it first, who knows, it may have been caused by faulty wiring,” Pichay told reporters in Tagbilaran City in Bohol.

“The opposition, we know how irresponsible they are. They make accusations right away,” he said. “They blame on us everything bad that has happened to the country.”

He said he had information that Comelec has backup files of important documents and records saved in compact discs.

“That’s why despite the burning of the Comelec building, they still have a complete list of voters in discs,” he said.

Re-electionist Sen. Ralph Recto said the incident “only highlights the fire prevention month (this March).” He said the fire “only means we should give importance to our Bureau of Fire Protection.”

Former senator Vicente Sotto III said Comelec officials should have anticipated such accident because the old Comelec building was a fire hazard.

“I’m not surprised that it happened. What is important is that the records have been saved as far as I have been informed. I just received information that only the records of the gun ban exemptions were not saved,” Sotto pointed out.

He also laughed off allegations that the fire was deliberately set as part of the administration’s cheating plan.

“In cases like this, they easily accuse us of cheating. It’s hard to understand that kind of mentality. They’re paranoid,” he said.

Re-electionist Sen. Joker Arroyo, for his part, gave the media advice on how to treat the fire story. “My only request to media is when you write your lead and file your report, don’t put as lead ‘Administration denies burning of Comelec,’ please don’t.”


Paolo Romero, Delon Porcalla, Non Alquitran, Eva Visperas, AFP, AP

Find more like this: Breaking News

Comments

  1. Dodo says:

    Only in the Philippines. :-(

  2. Rebel Zul says:

    people rize

    stirred the anger within
    ablaze our own tyranny…

    a sham of system voting…
    alaze by our own conscious reality…

    that people will rize
    higher than our past sacraifice..

    WuN

  3. Domis says:

    Two months before a major election. Critical papers needed for resolution of election protest cases. The marines on guard suddenly went missing. AND WE’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE WORRIED! Anyone buying this ‘faulty electrical wiring’ crap?!

  4. Datu Puti says:

    Whoever wins the election, expect there to be a strong opposition and challenge to results. Must there be a “People’s Power” each time this comes around. It’s stuff like this that make the AFP and the Administration lose more crediblity and make me wonder if there actually is a threat posed by the “terrorist organizations” NPA and MILF and if there is.

  5. Shane says:

    Shocking to say the least! Tsk tsk. Another one bites the dust.

  6. Dodo says:

    3 Comelec employees questioned

    By CHRISTINA MENDEZ and CECILLE SUERTE FELIPE
    The Philippine Star

    Three employees of the Commission on Elections who were at the poll body’s main office shortly before a fire destroyed the building last Sunday have been invited by investigators for questioning.

    Superintendent Fennimore Jaudian of the Anti-Arson Task Group said the three are not considered suspects and will only be asked to share more information that may help investigators pinpoint the cause of the blaze.

    They were identified as utility worker Jaime Galgo, 37; computer maintenance man Ariel Sandrino, 31; and electrician Artemio Acierto, 43.

    “They (three employees) said they tried to use fire extinguishers but the blaze spread quickly and eventually engulfed the whole building,” Jaudian said.

    COMELEC executive director Pio Joson and other employees were also at the COMELEC before the fire.

    The second floor of the gutted building had been converted into a sleeping lounge for field personnel.

    “We have no budget for the hotel accommodation of our field personnel. So we allowed them to sleep there,” Joson said.

    Investigators have been sifting through the smouldering ruins of the building. Debris collected will be submitted either to the Philippine National Police Crime Laboratory or the National Bureau of Investigation for analysis.

    The Anti-Arson Task Group is an inter-agency body headed by Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, and composed of the BFP, the Department of Justice, the PNP, the NBI, and the Safety Organization of the Philippines.

    Meanwhile, the Genuine Opposition (GO) fears the “likelihood of fraud in the May polls after a fire at the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) building, but stopped short of blaming the Arroyo administration for the blaze.

    “Much has already been heard from COMELEC officials that Sunday’s fire would not affect the May polls, however we are not reassured,” GO spokesman Adel Tamano said in a statement.

    The dawn fire destroyed records related to the disputed 2004 presidential and senatorial elections.

    “Basically, if the COMELEC cannot even protect its own building from a simple fire, with its military security detail, private security staff and close proximity to a fire station, then how can the ordinary voter feel assured that the COMELEC can protect his vote against cheating?” Tamano asked.

    He said that given the numerous scandals involving the COMELEC, the opposition couldn’t help but suspect something sinister behind the blaze.

    “In the context of the scandal involving Evardone at the National Printing Office, reports that casual employees were caught copying serial numbers of official ballots at the NPO, and in the aftermath of the ‘Hello Garci’ scandal that still haunts the COMELEC, voters and GO candidates who are opposed to cheating cannot feel at ease,” Tamano said. Felipe Evardone was the former head of the NPO.

    Malacañang came to the defense of the COMELEC, saying “intrigues and black propaganda should not get ahead of the truth, both in the case of the fire and the reported copying of ballots at the National Printing Office.”

    Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the Palace would continue to support COMELEC “in battling any and all attempts to undermine the conduct of the polls and in ensuring a clean and honest vote reflecting the people’s choice.”

    Tamano said the COMELEC should never deviate from its task of keeping the polls clean because the election “is the great equalizer where rich and poor, educated and unschooled, powerful and marginalized are given one vote each.”

    He stressed that GO was not maligning the COMELEC but merely reminding it of its duty to protect votes.

    “It is not that we do not trust the COMELEC, but that trust must be earned and that it is a better course to be overly careful, cautions and prepared against cheating than to be apathetic,” Tamano said.

    But GO campaign manager and San Juan Mayor JV Ejercito said the COMELEC fire might be “part of an evil plan to stop the elections.”

    He said that with the 2004 poll records destroyed, it would be harder to track potential cheating activities. “We really have to look beyond this incident,” Ejercito said.

    Senatorial candidates Loren Legarda and Panfilo Lacson issued separate statements calling on their colleagues and the public to wait for the results of the arson investigation before making conclusions.

    “The ballot boxes included in my electoral protests are not with the COMELEC’s main office in Manila. These are with the electoral tribunal and with the municipal treasurer’s offices all over the country,” Legarda said in a phone interview.

    “I just hope it’s not the voters’ list that got burned so that there won’t be any reason to produce a new list. I hope no important documents got lost in the fire that might trigger another massive cheating,” she said.

    “It’s too early to judge, I myself called for calm and sobriety. The BFP (Bureau of Fire Protection) had just started its investigation and pinpointed the focal point,” Lacson said at the Kapihan sa Manila Hotel forum.

    “The next step is to determine if there was an incendiary substance. In the absence of that, I think we should exercise restraint,” he said.

    “Once we see basis that the fire was deliberate, I think the people should make them accountable. I suggest those behind the fire should be lynched because they threatened to destroy the electoral process,” he said.

    But he said the COMELEC deserves an apology from the opposition if investigators rule out arson.

    No Marines

    Troops could not have abandoned the burning COMELEC because they were not assigned to secure the building in the first place.

    “How could our soldiers abandon their posts when we don’t have troops assigned to secure the area in the first place?” Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Ariel Caculitan asked.

    He said the Marines pulled out of COMELEC in 2002 following the abolition of the Marine Guard Battalion.

    Caculitan was reacting to a statement by Manila fire chief Pablito Cordeta that he would ask the Marine guards to explain why they deserted the COMELEC when the fire broke out.

    “The Philippine Marine Corps has no unit, not a single unit to secure the facilities of the COMELEC in Intramuros, Manila,” Caculitan stressed.

    He also said the COMELEC did not tap the assistance of the Marines for poll duties. He attributed this to the memorandum of agreement between the COMELEC and the defense department reducing the military’s role in elections.

    Protest records gone

    A COMELEC inventory revealed that original poll protests records dating back to 1995 were destroyed in the fire.

    Abalos said the records covered poll protests in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 election cases.

    Abalos, however, claimed that most of the cases have already been resolved and only nine to 15 of these cases are up for resolution. The fire also burned records of Supreme Court cases, minutes of en banc meetings, stenographic notes, and National Board of Canvassers tape records. “It is just unfortunate that this happened at this time,” he said.

    “If this was a case of sabotage, why that one (old building) and not this one (Palacio del Gobernador building),” he said. The Palacio del Gobernador across the burned building houses most of the COMELEC offices, including the chairman’s.

    The original building was built in the 1940s and was condemned by the city government seven years ago.

    Abalos claimed that in 2004, Manila Mayor Lito Atienza offered to renovate the building but he wanted to convert the lower floors into commercial space. This was rejected by the COMELEC.

    Fire Officer 2 Guillermo Firmalino said the COMELEC’s fire extinguishers were no match for the raging fire because there was crude oil for the generators at the ground floor where the fire started.

    “In situations like this, a blanket soaked in water should have been used,” he said.

    The COMELEC is still computing the cost of the damage, which had been initially estimated at P20 million. The fire also damaged five cars, including a service vehicle of the Special Action Force. Sheila Crisostomo, Jaime Laude, Paolo Romero, Helen Flores

  7. rz says:

    people rize

    stirred the anger within
    ablaze our own tyranny…

    a sham of system voting…
    ablaze by our own conscious reality…

    that people will rize
    higher than our past sacrifice..

    WuN

    __________
    *edited…hahahaha

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