NCCC On My Mind

As the tragedy of the NCCC Mall fire lingers, former newspaperman Gus Miclat takes his readers on a melancholic walk down memory lane, plaintively plays Devil’s Advocate, and echoes the hope of Davao residents for a collective, cathartic redemption.

A pall of gloom continues to hang over the city.

The fire that gutted the New City Commercial Corporation (NCCC) mall in Davao has cast a sad cloud over the city’s otherwise resilient citizens. That actual rain clouds intermittently hover and pour showers to an already injured city seem to be testing our people’s will.

Typhoon Vinta dumped a lot of water the night before the fire, severely flooding parts of the metro particularly at Jade Valley. Hundreds of families have set up tents and makeshift lodgings along the side streets. It is ironic that they are “luckier” than those who perished in other parts of Mindanao from the storm’s wrath, particularly in Zamboanga.

But the fire at NCCC was something that was and is still hard to accept. And fathom.

The 38 lives lost seem to be atrociously high given initial reports that the fire was “under control.” A neighbor in our office even said that there was nothing to worry as she received word that it was just some “smoke” that was being handled already.

It was not so.

While a slew of investigation is ongoing, all the questions must have been repeatedly asked. Foremost of which are: “Did the fire alarm or sprinklers work?” “Were the fire exits closed?” “Was it an act of arson?” “Why did it happen just before the mall opened?” “Did the mall have the proper fire protocols?” “How could the 38 who died were not able to quickly escape when the mall was still almost empty of people?” “Didn’t the arsonist/s—if indeed there was one or more—realize that there was a call center operating 24 hours inside the mall, if the intention was "just" to burn it down?”

To most of us, NCCC was our “go-to” mall. Its supermarket was the best in town, hands-down. Not only because it had a wide array of goods for sale, but also because it was relatively affordable than the rest. You rub elbows with all sorts of people as you shop: middle-class, rich, poor, young, and seniors alike. It was big, comfortable and convenient to go to. The supermarket was some sort of an “equalizer’ of classes.

For those who had cars, parking was not a problem and it was much preferred because the major portion was in the basement. It protected the vehicles and its owners from the elements. And public transport was easily accessible just in front of the building. Young, sprightly boys holler and catch cabs for you if the taxi line was bare.

Our kids have been regaled by the mall’s entertainment and game center section. It had the most choices from the usual video game machines to karaoke cubicles. Small crowds gathered around the dance platforms as students in uniform or young “jologs” try to out-step and out-perspire each other.

It was the hangout place of my two eldest kids and their classmates when they were in high school—and to think they had to commute from Mintal where their school was located.

The bowling center was the best in town. Friends, families, even corporate groups descend there to sweat it out, contest, or bond.

The cinemas were comfortable. The films they showed catered to all types of aficionados. I remember that they even had uniformed usherettes before.

Like its supermarket, the department store section offered a range of items reasonably priced. We usually go here for last minute Christmas or school opening shopping.

And everybody seemed to be welcome. It was like family.

The restaurants, bakery, food stalls, and food court had both the regular and special fare, with one or two local favorites like Cecil’s to boot. Never mind if it did not provide senior citizens’ discount.

There was a quick-fix repair stall, a lotto outlet, pharmacy, money changer, and local delicacies kiosks.

In short, NCCC had almost everything basic you needed. But shopping or just being there also gave you a sense of community, of Davao, a feeling of family.

That is why it is hard to grasp that this icon in our lives is suddenly gone, and more painfully with more than three dozen lives lost with it. Just on the day before Christmas Eve. When its regular shoppers would have been doing their last ditch Christmas buying spree. And pre- Christmas get-togethers. Like what perhaps most of those who perished there were looking forward to also do.

It is an eerie feeling passing by the disemboweled remains of the mall on the road to and from the city. The burnt twisted metal beams especially at the side of the road towards Ma-a, pierce our fond memories of something that was part of us. The still-standing facade on the front of the mall seems to hide our tender reminiscences and traps the desperate wails for help of those who died inside.

Their deaths must not remain in vain. Without pre-empting or pre-judging the case, justice must be meted in its fullest degree. Wherever it falls.

Perhaps that is why the motley flowers and wreaths outside the supermarket entrance left by victims' relatives and other grieving citizens starkly contrast the energy that this once throbbing edifice exuded. It is as if the people are still in denial, keenly awaiting the answers to their questions.

For I would have thought that by now, we would have already flooded the steps with flowers, cards, messages and mementos.

Maybe only when this happens will justice be found. And then we can all move on.

And let the NCCC of our lives rest in peace in our hearts.

Mr. Miclat edited a Davao community paper, The San Pedro Express, in the late 1970s, and was an active member of the National Press Club. He has since joined civil society as Director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue. This article is reprinted with permission from his Facebook page.