Indonesia detains owner after deadly fireworks factory blaze

A police officer is seen at the site of the explosion at Kosambi village in Tangerang, Banten province, Indonesia.
A police officer is seen at the site of the explosion at Kosambi village in Tangerang, Banten province, Indonesia.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (REUTERS, THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Indonesian authorities have detained a fireworks factory owner and a manager on suspicion of negligence after explosions and fire on Thursday (Oct 26) ripped through a warehouse on the outskirts of Jakarta, killing 48 workers and injuring dozens, police said on Saturday.

The blaze in the manufacturing hub of Tangerang was one of the worst industrial disasters to hit South-east Asia’s biggest economy, where safety standards are often weakly enforced.

Police said the fire started when sparks from a welding operation lit a stack of raw materials used for making fireworks, causing at least two explosions that could be heard kilometres away.

“The men are suspected of negligence that led to deaths,” said Jakarta police spokesman Argo Yuwono. 

The owner of the PT Panca Buana Cahaya Sukses factory and an operations manager were detained while police looked for the welder. The owner was also suspected of employing underage workers, police said.

Neither of the two detained was available for comment. 

Tangerang regent Ahmed Zaki said on Friday that the company, which had been operating for two months, had a permit for packaging but not producing fireworks. 

Preliminary investigations and witness accounts showed that more than 30 victims were found at the back of the factory, where they had run to try to escape while others had to break holes in the walls to get out. 

Police denied reports that the front gate and only exit of the factory was locked at the time of the fire.

All bodies, many of them charred beyond recognition, had been taken away from the gutted factory, and family members were providing DNA samples to try to identify them. 

Dozens of workers have been admitted to hospital with burns of up to 80 per cent of their bodies. Hospital officials said some remained in critical condition and expected the death toll to rise. 

The company is suspected to have employed children and teenagers.

Many of the victims in the blasts were women and children.

Rumsiani, 18, an ex-worker of the factory who visited the site on Friday, said she had quit due to the poor working conditions inside the plant.

"I quit two weeks ago because I could not stand the strong smell of the material. My eyes would get sore and there was a lack of ventilation," she said.

Rumsiani said many of her ex-colleagues were teenagers just like her who lived near the factory, which is located in an industrial area surrounded by houses and schools.

"There is no special recruitment process. I was recruited by my aunt, then I started working," she said.

The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), which is investigating the case, said the factory had been careless as it employed many children and teenagers.

Komnas HAM commissioner on supervision and investigation, Siane Indriani, said one of the victims had been identified as Siti Fatimah, a 15-year-old worker who was being treated at the Tangerang General Hospital (RSUD Tangerang).

"Besides Siti Fatimah, there is also a 13-year-old victim. We could not interview her because she was being treated in the intensive care unit," Siane said after visiting the factory on Friday.

Based on the commission's observations, the factory did not have specific procedures in recruiting employees, especially for its packing unit.

"The company does not have clear data on its workers," Siane said.

Indonesia's labour law allows a company to employ workers aged between 13 and 15 years old, as long as neither their physical nor mental development is disrupted.

However, as a fireworks company is categorised as dangerous for underage employment, Women's Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Yohana Yembise has condemned the factory's employment of the young workers.

 
 

"Working at a fireworks factory really endangers children and could disrupt their mental development," Yohana said.

Tangerang Regent Ahmed Zaki Iskandar said the factory had been built to operate as a warehouse and that a permit had been attained to manufacture fireworks in 2016.

However, it only began operations two months ago.