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Out of sixth grade, and straight to the factory she died in

New York Times - October 30, 2017

Restidia Putri and Richard C. Paddockoct, Tangerang At the age of 14, Surnah was done with school, and a month ago she took a full-time job packaging fireworks at a new factory near her home. On a good day, she could make about $3.80.

On Thursday, she died along with 47 other workers when a welder's spark ignited a fire at the factory, the police say, causing two explosions.

"I am feeling very lost," said her mother, Suti, 29, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name. "She was my only child."

Surnah was one of at least three underage workers at the factory, their family members said Sunday. All three were 14-year-old girls who stopped attending school after the sixth grade because their families could not afford the costs.

The fireworks factory fire left few of the 103 workers there unscathed. And it has again put a spotlight on Indonesia's conjoined struggles with workplace safety, widespread child labor and keeping children in school.

One of the girls, Evih, has been missing since the day of the fire, said her father, Udin, 35. Some bodies recovered from the factory remain unidentified.

A third girl, Fatimah, is hospitalized with burns over 80 percent of her body, according to her aunt, Jani, 52.

The factory had no rear exit, and many victims were trapped at the back of the building as they tried to escape. Many victims, like Surnah, were burned beyond recognition.

The police are continuing to investigate the fire. The factory owner, the welder and the operations director could face criminal charges, said Fredy Yudha, a police official in Tangerang, where the factory was located.

On the morning of the fire, Surnah's uncle, Uncin, 21, said he heard an explosion and rushed to the factory, where he joined the police and neighbors in trying to break through the back wall.

They created a hole large enough for three people to escape, he said. But there was no sign of Surnah.

Surnah, 14, shown in a family photo, had worked about a month at the fireworks factory in Tangerang when she died there last Thursday.

Mr. Uncin said they worked for another half-hour trying to break down the wall and could hear people on the other side calling out.

"I heard people screaming, 'Help, help, help!'" he said. Then there was a second explosion. "After that, there were no voices anymore," he said.

The factory, PT Panca Buana Cahaya Sukses, was in a poor neighborhood of Tangerang, a city of about two million just west of Jakarta, the capital. It was built two months ago in an open field near a junior high school, neighbors said.

Surnah and Evih were close friends, their parents said. Evih was inspired to apply for a job at the factory after Surnah started working there, her father said.

The police were able to identify Surnah relatively quickly because of the braces on her teeth. After a DNA comparison with her mother confirmed her identity, they delivered a sealed coffin to the family.

Her funeral was held Saturday. Among the pallbearers was the Tangerang police chief, Harry Kurniawan, whose department is investigating the fire.

While school costs are not exorbitant, many poor families in Indonesia cannot afford to send their children beyond sixth grade.

Surnah lived with her grandparents, an aunt and uncle and a cousin in a one-bedroom house. Her mother, who has remarried, lives with her new husband.

"Surnah said, 'It is better if I work than if I stay at home and play,'" her mother said. "Surnah said it is better for her to have income herself."

The factory employed mostly women. Surnah worked in a group of five that had a quota of 1,000 packages a day. If they fell short, their pay would be reduced.

Like Surnah, her friend Evih wanted to be independent and to contribute to her family, her father said.

"I could see she was so happy working there," he said. "She could have her own money and her own income. She knew our financial problems and she could also help our family. The last time she got money, she gave it to me and my wife."

[Restidia Putri reported from Tangerang, and Richard C. Paddock from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.]

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/world/asia/indonesia-fireworks-fire-underage.html.

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