Cheryl Sarate was a college freshman in the Philippines who burned to death when her costume caught fire during a college beauty pageant. The tragedy dominated headlines for many months in the Philippines media and engendered much discussion and controversy over issues of safety, responsibility, and liability.
Ms. Sarate, a native of the Calinan district, was 16 years old when she enrolled as a freshman English major at the government-run University of Southeastern Philippines (USEP) in Davao City, hoping to get her degree and then work abroad. Her friends described her as beautiful and “like an angel.” Her personal motto, which became bitterly ironic after her death, was “expect the unexpected.”
On July 20, 2006, the Guild of English Students at the university held a beauty pageant in the campus Social Hall titled “Lord and Lady of Utopia” in which contestants paraded in elaborate costumes based on fantasy and fairy tale themes. Sarate was costumed as an angel, her attire including wings and a headdress, as well as a billowing long gown. She had not planned to participate in the contest, but was a last-minute replacement for another contestant who bowed out of the competition.
Around 7:15-7:25 that evening (sources vary), Sarate had finished parading down the catwalk and was returning to the stage when the bottom of her costume made contact with one of many open-flame candles lining the runway. The balloon-like lower part of her gown, lined with plastic and covered with flammable cotton, burst into flames, which quickly caught the wings of her costume and her hair. Witnesses said she was totally engulfed in fire in a matter of two or three seconds. She jumped off the stage calling for help as many spectators fled for their own safety. A few individuals attempted to beat the fire out with jackets, but this only initially served to fan the flames. Sarate was ablaze for about 90 seconds before the flames were smothered.
Emergency services were called, and took 10 minutes to arrive (despite being located just 2 kilometers from the site of the accident). Sarate was rushed to the burn unit at the Davao Medical Center. Despite having suffered third-degree burns over 80% of her body, she survived almost 3 days, dying on the afternoon of July 23.
Shortly after the incident, USEP president Julieta I. Ortiz announced that the school would face whatever charges might be filed against it. But when questioned about the school’s responsibility for the tragedy, she would not comment. This angered many who felt that the school’s responsibility was obvious, and should be quickly acknowledged. The school did quickly provide a measure of financial assistance to Sarate’s family, both from university funds as well as monies raised by students and faculty, to assist with funeral and burial costs, hospital bills, etc. The pageant, which had been organized and held by a student group, was not officially sponsored or overseen by the school. Nevertheless, many in the general public viewed this as evasive of responsibility as they felt that any organized activity on university property involving students should have had official oversight. Eight days after the pageant, the university commissioned a fact-finding committee, which was to report in one month’s time. Some criticized the delay in organizing such a commission, while others saw the tragic incident as endemic of a general degree of neglect and deterioration in the country’s state universities.
A number of safety issues concerning the venue were brought to light. Though school officials insisted that proper safety equipment was present in the hall where the pageant was held, dozens of witnesses testified (and a video later confirmed) that there were no fire extinguishers at hand, nor any easy access to water. Many felt that the presence of basic safety measures, facilities, and available first aid could have prevented more serious injury and saved Sarate’s life. The use of open flames in close proximity to contestants and audience was also criticized, and authorities stated that no permit had been obtained for the use of the candles, as would normally be required under the local fire codes for a public event. In addition, it was revealed that the school had not reported the accident to the local fire station, where officials first learned of the incident via television news reports.
The Philippines National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) ultimately filed a criminal complaint against Ortiz and 16 other individuals including student organizers of the beauty pageant for alleged “reckless imprudence resulting to homicide.” It also recommended administrative charges against Ortiz and six other university officials. These civil and criminal cases have not yet been resolved.
A few days after Sarate’s death, TV network ABS-CBN obtained and broadcasted part of an amateur video (available for viewing on YouTube) of the incident. Although mitigated by the camera angle (which never shows a totally unobstructed view of Sarate on fire due to spectators in the field of view), it nevertheless horrified viewers, both for the horrendous nature of the accident, as well as the seeming indifference and neglect of those present. It showed that most bystanders did not attempt to come to her aid, many simply standing and staring at what was happening, while others moved away from Sarate for their own safety. There is even some laughter heard on the soundtrack. Additionally, the emcee is heard announcing that the pageant would resume in 20 minutes, apparently unaware of or indifferent to the severity of Sarate’s injuries.