Families are angry at slow process of identification as most bodies were burnt beyond recognition in the factory blaze.
Medan, Indonesia – It should have been a happy day.
As the residents of Sambirejo village on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia set up tents and prepared food for a party, they heard a series of loud explosions from a nearby house, which had been turned into a makeshift factory to make cigarette lighters. A fireball ripped through the roof.
There were 25 women inside, and some of their children had joined them while they waited for the party to begin.
Novita lost her 36-year-old cousin Fitri Yuliana who was in the factory with her 10-year-old daughter Syiffa. “I heard ‘boom, boom, boom’ so I ran towards the sound and saw that the building was on fire,” she told Al Jazeera. “We tried to scoop water out of a ditch, but there was nothing we could do.”
Altogether 30 people lost their lives – five of them children. No one could survive the ferocity of the blaze.
When the fire subsided and Novita ventured inside, she was horrified by what she saw. “I couldn’t recognise anyone, just their teeth were visible,” she said. “The stomachs [of the victims] had burst and their intestines were spilling out. Some of the bodies were hugging children.”
One of the victims was Desi Setiani, 26, who was found wrapped around her two children, three-year-old Bisma Syaputra and six-year-old Juan Ramadhan. The boys were inside the building because they had gone to see their mother at work before the party started.
“I heard the first explosion and people around me started calling for help,” Desi’s husband, Indra Lesmana, 34, told Al Jazeera. “My wife, two children and my sister-in-law were inside, so I ran to try and put out the flames using water from a nearby tank. My family couldn’t get out because the back doors were on fire and the front door was locked.”
Lesmana said that the fire raged for around an hour before the firefighters managed to extinguish the flames. “By that time, I knew there wouldn’t be any survivors, even though I was too shocked to look inside,” he said. “I just panicked.”
He said he had urged his wife to stop working at the illegal factory on several occasions due to safety concerns, but she had yet to find another job. According to Lesmana, the factory was equipped with one small fire extinguisher, but the workers had not been trained on how to use it.
The fire is thought to have been caused by lighter fluid which ignited inside the building. The police investigation is still ongoing.
Family members told Al Jazeera that, just days before the incident, the factory had received a new shipment of thousands of lighters. The all-female workforce was assembling them by affixing metal heads onto the plastic bodies.
Indonesia is notorious for its illegal factories, which often operate out of private homes to avoid paying taxes and circumvent other workplace regulations.
Millions of workers across the archipelago work in unsafe conditions and accidents are common. In February 2019, an illegal gold mine in North Sulawesi collapsed, killing dozens inside. Nearly two years ago, almost 50 people died when a fireworks factory exploded in the capital, Jakarta.
Lesmana is disappointed that the local authorities have so far failed to identify his wife’s remains. His sons were identified and buried on Saturday night as they were the only two males to die in the blaze, making the identification process faster and simpler.
Slow identification process
The grieving father and husband was also critical of the decision to move the bodies to Bhayangkara Hospital in the provincial capital of Medan, rather than trying to identify them at the scene. “Because my wife was found hugging our two children to save them from the flames, I could have easily identified her if she hadn’t been moved,” he said.
Lesmana added that he had provided the Disaster Victim Identification [DVI] team with dental records and photographs of his wife. Her parents had also given a DNA sample. “They need to work harder [to identify the victims],” he added.
Other relatives, who have been camped at Bhayangkara Hospital since Friday, shared the same concerns.
A family member, who did not want to be identified, said that his sister-in-law, Ayu Agustina, 23, had died in the blaze and that the family had provided information to identify her remains as early as Friday night. “But for three days they didn’t tell us anything,” he told Al Jazeera. “They’re the experts, but they showed us her earrings today and we thought we had a deal to take her home,” he added.
No members of the DVI team, some of whom have been drafted in from the Indonesian capital, would speak to Al Jazeera directly.
The team did however allow Al Jazeera to visit the hospital morgue to observe the challenges of identifying the victims.
The bodies were charred black by the explosion and almost all their skin was burned off, leaving internal organs exposed – hampering the identification process and rendering hair samples, scar tissue and fingerprints useless.
A DVI team member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said two positive means of identification were needed to release a body to a family – a DNA match or other matches which can be cross-referenced, such as jewellery, clothing or dental records.
Families have been prevented from viewing the remains of the victims for fear that it would be too upsetting and would not help the identification process due to the condition of the bodies.
The factory owner, a businessman based in Medan, has been arrested.
“I hope he faces the full force of the law and goes to prison,” said Lesmana. “He has to take responsibility for this.”
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