Butuan City yesterday morning, killing at least 17 people, many of them women.
Most of the victims were trapped in their sleeping quarters on the third floor of the Tan building on Montilla Boulevard in downtown Butuan. They all worked at the Novo Jeans store on the building's ground floor.
Butuan authorities said it was the city's worst fire, which lasted for two hours.
Firemen and rescue workers were still sifting through the gutted building for bodies hours later.
Chief Supt. Reynaldo Rafal, director of the Caraga regional police, said three people who escaped from the burning building believed there were 20 people in the building when the fire broke out on the ground floor at around 4 a.m.
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.
Rafal said all of the victims were stay-in workers of at least five stores in the building.
"Based on the initial investigation, the fire started inside the Novo Jeans outlet. But it is still being verified what started the fire," said Supt. Martin Gamba, spokesman of the Caraga regional police, in a phone interview.
Twelve of the bodies were found in the sleeping area and the rest were scattered on the 2nd floor.
Relatives and friends, most of them in shock and tears, gathered in search of loved ones in front of the building, where police stood before body bags with the victims' remains.
Fifteen fire trucks from neighboring cities and provinces and fire fighters from a mall in the city helped put out the fire.
The store owner could not be con-tacted for comment yesterday.
Butuan Mayor Ferdinand M. Amante, Jr. and Vice Mayor Lawrence Fortun deployed the city's social welfare personnel to provide assistance to the immediate families of the victims.
Fire officials said investigators were trying to determine what sparked the fire and if the owners violated fire regulations.
The building was a theater before being turned into a commercial center with several stores.
A lack of firefighting equipment and personnel coupled with safety violations has resulted in major fire disasters in the Philippines, especially in shantytowns.
A 1995 inferno that gutted the Ozone Disco Pub in Manila, the capital, killed 162 people.
Butuan is a city of more than 300,000. (With an additional report by AP)