Who was punished for Serendra blast?
MANILA, Philippines – A year since the fatal explosion at a posh condominium in Taguig, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has yet to file any charges relating to the blast that killed 4 people.
This, despite an October fact-finding report that was submitted to the agency by the Department of the Interior and Legal Government (DILG), which found liable various groups and individuals, including the owners and caretaker of the Two Serendra unit where the explosion occurred, and construction company RM Ladrido which renovated the unit.
Also with liability, according to the report, were 3 companies owned by Ayala corporation: Two Serendra, gas supplier Bonifacio Gas Corporation, and building contractor Makati Development Corporation (MDC).
Asked why the government has yet to file any charges, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said on Wednesday, June 4, it is still "under assessment."
"The report of DILG is under evaluation because of course we at DOJ have to determine possible criminal liability. That is what we are assessing thoroughly," she said. "It's difficult to assess criminal liability as against administrative or civil liability in incidents like this."
But it appears not even an investigation is underway.
Raymund Fortun, counsel for Marianne Cayton who owns the unit that exploded, said they have yet to be contacted or probed by the DOJ a year later.
"Absolutely nothing," he said. "We have not received a complaint coming from the DOJ that we were being charged for [anything]. This is why we were forced to file the complaint ourselves, because the DOJ has done nothing to determine liability."
In January 2014, Cayton filed for damages of P30.2 million against the 3 Ayala corporations. The companies have since filed a dilatory Motion to Dismiss. The case is pending resolution at the Taguig Regional Trial Court.
'Negligence of parties'
On May 31, 2013, a gas leak at the high-end apartment building caused a massive explosion that blew out one wall of Unit 501B. Four people died as a result of the blast — 3 Abenson employees who were in the area when the truck they were driving was crushed by the blown-out wall; and Angelito San Juan, the guest occupant of Unit 501B. (READ: Blast highlights Serendra flaws)
Four months later, an inter-agency task force led by the interior department and private company Kroll Associates said the LPG explosion was caused by an "unauthorized movement" of a gas range during repairs, and "negligence" of parties.
It submitted its findings to the DOJ for appropriate action.
In the absence of a court case, MDC – one of the companies that probers said could be legally liable for the blast but has yet to be investigated – is again the one rebuilding Tower BA, the site of the exploded unit.
The DILG report said MDC was one of those liable for the blast due to the condominium building's "non-functional safety devices" and the fact that it provided "only one gas leak detector for the whole building."
On the day of the explosion, the building's lone gas detector did not work.
Fortun told Rappler that he and his client had opposed any sort of restoration or renovation on Unit 501B because of their complaint for damages against Ayala.
"As a general rule, we had to make a general opposition to it simply because if we agreed to it, it may be agreed as a waiver of our claim to Ayala," he said.
Fortun admitted, however, that he has since reached an agreement with the head of the homeowners association at Serendra, Antonio Cabral, and that renovations would begin even with Fortun's opposition.
During a meeting with Fortun and Cabral, Fortun said Cabral told him they would hire a private company to do the repairs instead of asking Ayala-owned MDC, because they had "lost faith" in MDC following the explosion.
In a Notice to Proceed dated May 20, however, the Ayala Property Management Corporation wrote, "Mr. Cabral gave the go signal to MDC to already start with the Restoration Works in Tower BA."
Cabral denied that using a private company to do repairs was ever discussed. "That was never under consideration," he told Rappler.
MDC, which serves 100% of Ayala Land Inc (ALI)'s construction projects, is expected to finish restoration before the end of the year.
The Serendra blast was not the first time an explosion involved a property of ALI. The 2007 blast at the Glorietta 2 shopping mall in Ayala Center, Makati City killed 11 people and injured more than 100 others.
In that incident, the DOJ cleared ALI of any responsibility and dropped any charges against the company, instead recommending charges against an engineer of Makati Supermarket Corporation and other engineers and maintenance workers of private contractors.
In a statement, ALI spokesperson Dindo Fernandez insisted that the company is not liable for the Serendra blast, saying "Alveo Land, Makati Development Corporation and Bonifacio Gas Corporation sought the outright dismissal of the complaint" of Cayton.
It echoed earlier statements they made following the fact-finding report of DILG, wherein the 3 companies all said they were "fully compliant" with government regulations and international standards.
Fortun said ALI never tried to settle with Cayton. ALI decided not to settle with the family of San Juan either, who was killed in the blast.
Fortun, who also represents San Juan's kin, said he reached out to Ayala's lawyers for a possible settlement. "We sat down, gave our proposal, but the lawyers said the top management decided they were not going to settle. I mean zero, nothing," he said. "Why would you agree to listen to us if from the beginning you had no plans to settle? I don't understand why."
ALI had paid for San Juan's hospital bills after the blast, until he died on his hospital bed 5 weeks later. San Juan had suffered burns on 89% of his body.
Fortun said San Juan's relative will be filing their own complaint for wrongful death "shortly." The claim is also P30 million.
In contrast, Ayala had settled with at least two of 3 of the other victims' families. In the statement, Ayala even mentioned it has "kept in touch with affected families and learned that they have established new sources of livelihood and that their children are doing well in school."
Aside from the statement, ALI refused to answer other questions related to the blast.
Still not home
Meanwhile, many affected residents have yet to return to their units.
About two weeks after the blast, then ALI president Antonino Aquino told Rappler that residents could return to their units after 6 months. But renovation on Tower BA has barely begun.
In the statement, ALI said "of the 3 buildings affected by the incident, one has been completely restored and turned over to its unit owners. Another building is targeted for turnover within the third quarter and the third one by the end of the year."
One resident, who owns a unit that is still awaiting repairs, said she lives in a leased apartment also inside the Two Serendra compound. She pays for utilities but the rent is covered by ALI.
However, residents still have to pay for their association dues – albeit discounted – for their damaged units even if they don't live there.
"The promise of returning to our old unit was not fulfilled because there's still ongoing renovation work," she told Rappler.
Cabral also cited factors that caused the delay of rebuilding, including the fact that they got the permission from the Taguig City government to start renovations only late last year – over 6 months after the explosion.
After getting their permission, Cabral said the homeowners then hired their own structural engineering firm to conduct a study on the reconstruction contributing to the delay.
At this point, one year after the blast, Cabral said the residents simply want to get their homes back.
"Given the trauma people suffered, people want to just get back to normal life," he said. - Rappler.com