Ozone Disco Tragedy
The Ozone Disco Tragedy happened on 18 March 1996, when a fire broke out at the jam-packed Ozone Disco in Quezon City. The fire claimed 162 lives, mostly teenagers, and is considered the deadliest fire ever recorded in the Philippines.
Before the tragedy, the Ozone Disco was one of the more popular discos in its time. It is located strategically at the corner of Tomas Morato Extension and Timog Avenue, in front of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines Memorial. The disco was inaugurated in 1991; the location was previously home to another club called Birdland in the 1980s.
The fire was reported to have started at around 12:30 AM of 18 March 1996, at the disk jockey's booth. Survivors recounted that electrical sparks and a series of firecracker-like explosions came from the booth before electricity was cut short and the whole disco was plunged into darkness. At the same time, smoke filled the whole establishment, which at that time had around 400 people inside, mostly students from various schools celebrating their graduation and the end of classes.
The fire quickly spread throughout the disco, aided by the flammable materials used in the interiors of the building such as the decorative egg cartons used in the ceiling and the acoustic foam insulation. Light fixtures fell from the ceiling as they were consumed by the fire. Moments later, the mezzanine fell, crushing some of the revelers trapped in the innermost part of the disco.
Panicking and unable to find a fire exit, many rushed to the narrow corridor leading to the front exit. However, the front doors measured less than two meters wide and swung inwards; the crowd pushed at the doors, closing them instead of pulling them open. The situation was compounded by security guards locking the door from outside, thinking that a riot had broken out inside.
By the time firefighters were able to open the doors and put out the flames, many had died; in the ensuing stampede to the exit, partygoers were suffocated, trampled, or burned to death. Firefighters discovered numerous bodies, piled-waist high along the narrow corridor behind the doors, charred beyond recognition. This forced victims' families to identify the bodies through the personal effects of the victims, such as jewelry.
Some bodies were never even identified, and were buried in mass graves.
The fire lasted for four hours, claimed around 160 lives, and left 310 persons injured. It also caused around Php 15 million worth of damage to property.
Investigation and Criminal Charges
An investigation of the incident was immediately ordered by President Fidel V. Ramos. It was discovered that the disco had numerous violations of the National Building Code such as the lack of fire exits, emergency lights and alarm systems; the narrow door which swung inwards; and overcrowding—the disco only had an official capacity of 35 people. The disco's permit to operate was also found to be dubious, as well as other permits issued by the Quezon City government.
A few days after the tragedy, criminal charges were filed against the owners and operators of the establishment under Westwood Entertainment, namely Hermilo Ocampo, president; his wife Raquel; Rosita Ku; her son Sonny Ku; Ramon Ng, treasurer; and Alfredo Chua.
Charges against Raquel Ocampo, Sonny and Rosita Ku, and Alfredo Chua were later dismissed. Hermilo Ocampo and Ramon Ng were found guilty of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide and multiple injuries; despite being sentenced to four years in prison, the two have posted bail and did not serve any time behind bars. All six have been also ordered to pay Php 25 million in damages to the families of the victims of the tragedy, but with Westwood Entertainment having filed for bankruptcy, only a portion of the amount was actually paid out.
Relatives of the victims, led by the Justice for Ozone Victims Foundation, Inc. (JOVFI) headed by Joseph Stephen Santos, have complained not just of the slow pace of justice but also of being “shortchanged” because of the light sentences meted out by the court.
Charges were also filed against 12 officials of the Quezon City government, including then City Engineer Alfredo Macapugay and Assistant City Engineer Benjamin Malinao. As of 2008, the case was still pending in court. Macapugay, however, was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Sandiganbayan in November 2001; the court ruling states that since Malinao was the one who approved the permits and clearances, Macapugay cannot be held liable.
Up to the present, the site where the Ozone Disco was located has never been refurbished for commercial use.
On 20 November 2014, the Sandiganbayan Fifth Division found seven former official of the Quezon City engineer's office and two private individuals guilty of graft in connection with the Ozone Disco Tragedy. They were sentenced to six to 10 years in jail.
Convicted of graft and corrupt practices were:
- City Engineer Alfredo Macapugay
- Former City Engineer Renato Rivera Jr.
- Building Inspector Edgardo Reyes
- Chief, Enforcement and Inspection Division, Francisco Itliong
- Chief, Processing Division, Feliciano Sagana
- Engineer Petronillo De Llamas
- Building Inspector Rolando Mamaid
- Hermilo Ocampo and Ramon Ng, members of the board of directors and stockholders of Westwood Entertainment Co. Inc., which managed the Ozone Disco.
The decision was penned by Associate Justice Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta. The court said that the officials were negligent in approving the building permit of the disco bar. They still issued two building permits and a certificate of occupancy to the disco despite having faults in the design and defects in the electrical and safety systems.
Since the incident, the Quezon City government had imposed stricter rules in issuing building permits. Issuing the permits, which used to be the task of the Office of the City Engineer, is now the task of the Office of the Building Official. City officials regulary inspect buildings to make sure rules and regulations are being followed.
A song by the band Pupil, entitled “Disconnection Notice,” is rumored to be inspired by the tragedy. Apart from the word “disconnection” sung in the song as “disco-nnection,” another indication was the second stanza of the song, which goes:
Dressed so swell
They're dancing at the gates of hell
'Cause there's nowhere to go
There's nowhere to go
Due to the horrific nature of the event, numerous instances of paranormal activity in the area have been reported. Nearby tenants have reportedly seen faint dancing silhouettes as well as hearing disco music coming from the venue in the evening. The place has also been visited several times by the Spirit Questors at the request of the JOVFI.
Another chilling coincidence was pointed out by writer Frank Cimatu in his blog Pine for Pine. A write-up for the Ozone Disco, published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in October 1993, says that one of the disco's main weekender events was called “I.T.S. At Ozone.” “I.T.S” was an acronym for “Incidentally Trapped on Sunday,” an eerie foreshadowing of the fire that would happen three years later.
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