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150 Confirmed Dead in Manila Disco Fire

March 19, 1996

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Fear spread as fast as the flames, as hundreds of young people celebrating the end of the school year at a Manila disco realized there were no fire exits. A stampede ensued.

When the blaze was finally put out Tuesday, firemen faced the horror before them: at least 150 dead, many bodies so charred they could not be identified.

Firemen worked with their bare hands to gingerly separate the burned bodies. Many were so overwhelmed by the grisly task they had to stop and share sips of gin to fortify themselves.

More than 12 hours later, only 16 of the dead had been identified by relatives, many only on the basis of shoes or jewelry.

The fire was the worst in the country’s history, Philippine officials said. It also was the world’s worst nightclub blaze since a fire in Southgate, Ky., killed 164 people in 1977.

Survivors said they saw electrical sparks and smoke shortly after midnight, moments before the trendy Ozone Disco Pub suddenly went pitch black. The disco’s acoustic foam insulation then ignited in a fierce blaze that quickly swept through the hall, investigators say.

Some of the 350 customers were crushed by the disco’s falling roof. Others rushed to escape through the only entrance, a narrow front corridor, where the bodies piled up waist-deep as dozens were trampled to death.

``I could not do anything,″ said Remy Menguis, a door guard. ``There was just a rush of people.″

Megis said his own son, Russel, was among those killed.

``We saw smoke and tried to run outside, but were caught in a stampede,″ said one survivor, who gave only her first name, Rose. ``I was stepped on, but managed to force my way out.″

She said two of the three friends she was with were missing.

Disc jockey Marvin Reyes said he saw flames catch the hair and clothes of screaming victims.

The disco’s original fire exit had been blocked by a new building built next door, investigators said.

Ismael Mathay, the mayor of Quezon City, a Manila suburb, ordered an investigation into why the disco was allowed to operate without an emergency exit and ordered new inspections of discos and movie theaters throughout the city.

Hospital officials said dozens of survivors had been brought in with third-degree burns, and their facilities were so overburdened that many other injured survivors were sent away to more distant facilities.

Fire officials had earlier estimated as many as 50 additional bodies remained under debris inside the building, located on a street crowded with bars, but no more victims were found by mid-day Tuesday.

Many bodies were so badly burned they stuck to each other, so rescuers had to be careful to avoid dismembering the remains. Victims’ bones were visible through the charred skin.

Officials gathered shoes, makeup kits and jewelry left by the victims into a display for relatives to examine. Erlinda Mandap, 45, sat weeping after finding only her daughter’s shoes.

She was not alone in her despair.

``I’m all alone now. What will happen to me?″ said Tess Sagario, 40, whose son and daughter had been inside.

The fire destroyed what was to have been a joyous celebration of the end of the school year. The Ozone Disco Pub was popular among college students, and several graduation parties were going on when the fire started.

``We went to celebrate the last day of school,″ said Susan Capuslan, 17. ``We were lucky to be seated near the exit.

``Suddenly the lights went out. I though it was a gimmick but then suddenly somebody shouted `Fire.′ All I can remember is that there was pandemonium.″

Many survivors said the fire appeared to have begun in the disk jockey’s booth, but some radio reports said a fuel tank in the kitchen may have exploded.

Fire officials were still investigating the cause.

Update hourly