FIVE fire officials being questioned over a blaze that led to the deaths of 37 staff at the southern Philippines offices of an American market research firm have been relieved of their duties, a government investigator said on Monday.

The Dec. 23 blaze in Davao City broke out at a furniture and fabric store on the third level of a mall, the New City Commercial Center (NCCC), and then engulfed the offices of the US firm, Research Now SSI, on the fourth floor of the same building in choking smoke.

The only person among the 38 killed in the fire who did not work at the firm was a mall security officer. More than 100 SSI employees who were on duty that day managed to escape, of whom six were injured.

Initial findings from a probe showed Leo Lauzon, fire safety inspector of SSI Office, Joel Quizmundo, fire safety inspector of the NCCC Mall, Roger Dumag, chief of the fire safety section of SIR fire station, and Renero Jimenez, station commander of SIR fire station have “some liabilities,” said Senior Superintendent Jerry Candido, one of the lead investigators.

SIR fire station has jurisdiction over the NCCC mall.

All four were relieved of their duties, Mr. Candido told Reuters over phone. A fifth official, Honee Fritz Alagano — Davao City fire marshal and spokeswoman for the Bureau of Fire Protection in the city — has also been relieved of command, he added.

“They were relieved because they are the subject of an investigation and of course to avoid influencing any witnesses in the investigation and possible tampering of documents within their custody,” said Mr. Candido, who is also a director of logistics at the Philippines’ Bureau of Fire Protection.

Mr. Candido earlier said there were indications of fire safety lapses that may have contributed to the tragedy.

The NCCC mall had been issued a fire safety inspection certificate in April 2017, a requirement for its yearly business permit renewal, Mr. Candido said, adding investigators would look into whether any questions were raised when it was granted the certificate last year and in previous years.

“When we conducted a verification inspection (after the fire), we found out there exists several violations of the fire code in the building,” he said. There are problems with “exits, sprinkler systems and alarm systems.”

Darry Gallego, assistant vice-president of corporate services at the NCCC, has said the mall could not comment on an ongoing investigation, but stressed that safety requirements had been met, including having a sprinkler system.

Barbara Palmer, SSI’s senior vice-president for global marketing, said in an e-mail response to a series of Reuters’ questions about fire safety at its Davao offices that the firm could not address them specifically while the probe was ongoing. — Reuters