MANILA — Flames billowed through a discotheque packed with graduation revelers early today, sending them fleeing for a blocked exit and stampeding into narrow halls. Firemen recovered the bodies of 150 people from the smoking ruins.
Dozens more were severely injured, many with third-degree burns. It was the worst fire ever in the Philippines and the worst in any nightclub since 1977, when 164 people died at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky.
Fire officials initially feared that as many as 50 more bodies could be covered by the debris inside, but no more were found by midday.
When the fire broke out shortly after midnight, an estimated 350 people were packed into the Ozone Disco Pub in suburban Quezon City, many of them taking part in high school and college graduation parties, according to survivors.
The Philippines school year begins in June.
"It was like hell," said disc jockey Marvin Reyes, who watched flames catch the hair and clothes of screaming victims. "I tried to announce there was a fire, but the microphone stopped working."
Bodies of people who had tried unsuccessfully to escape were piled waist-deep in a narrow corridor leading from the dance floor. Others were crushed beneath a collapsed mezzanine ceiling.
"We saw smoke and tried to run outside, but were caught in a stampede," said one survivor with burns on her feet and face, who gave only her first name, Rose. "I was stepped on but managed to force my way out."
She said two of the three friends she was with were missing.
"I could not do anything," said Reny Megis, a door guard at the disco. "There was just a rush of people." His own son, Russel, died inside.
As firefighters removed the bodies, dozens of wailing relatives sought word of missing family members.
Erlinda Mandap, 45, sat weeping after finding only her daughter's shoes.
Tess Sagario, 40, said both her son and daughter had been inside.
"I'm all alone now. What will happen to me?" she asked.
Investigators later said the disco's fire exit had been blocked by a new building next door.
Ismael Mathay, the mayor of Quezon City, ordered an investigation into why the disco was allowed to operate without an emergency exit and demanded new inspections of discos and movie theaters throughout the city.
Quezon City Police Chief Hercules Cataluna said the fire was the Philippines' worst ever.
Many survivors said the fire appeared to have begun in the disc jockey's booth, but some radio reports said a fuel tank in the kitchen may have exploded. Fire officials were still investigating the cause.