Routine hostage crisis turns deadly
ATTENTION: CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT
By Erik de Castro
I arrived at the scene of the hostage taking in Manila with feelings of excitement because it was a big story. But also, with a pang of sadness as I was at exactly the same place two months ago when yellow was the color of festivities for thousands of people attending the inauguration of our new president, Benigno “NoyNoy” Aquino.
I immediately noticed a parked tourist bus just in front of the grandstand. I was standing behind a police line about 300 yards away. I quickly snapped photos of the bus and and two women looking out from between the closed curtain of the bus.
My colleague Cheryl Ravelo and I set up our communications and our laptops to file pictures from my car. We immediately called Manila-based photographer Bobby Ranoco to arrange how we could get his memory cards to file the first Reuters pictures.
Bobby had earlier called me, out of breath, to advise me of the situation and his safe position hiding from the police at the grandstand. Bobby was near the area as the drama unfolded. He was at the press office of the Manila Police District when he was tipped off by a local photographer and a policeman friend. He went to the area with other local photographers thinking that it was a just a normal hostage taking event, a not-so-unusual occurrence in the Philippines. Bobby needed to hide from the police because of the vantage point of their location, afraid that the police would boot them out from there. He managed to befriend a worker in the grandstand to shuttle his memory cards back and forth to our filing area as he captured the dramatic events.
Philippine media started arriving at the scene and at noon, I looked around the area and it was literally swarmed by press, as the media outnumbered the police.
I was able to get a glimpse of the hostage-taker – a police officer who was dismissed from service – when he opened the bus door to talk to negotiators. He wore a police uniform and carried a long firearm. He was relaxed, in stark contrast to the tense and fearful look of hostage-takers I’ve seen before.
About six hostages were released at intervals throughout the afternoon, and I thought to myself this could be another happy ending for a Philippine-style hostage crisis, good pictures and nobody getting killed. I thought it would soon be over without violence especially with the release of some of the hostages during the early afternoon.
The mood started to change as 3 p.m. passed and the situation started to take a turn for the worse. I knew then that we were in for something. I wore my vest and helmet. I noticed that the majority of the Philippine media were not wearing safety gear except for Reuters staff and others working for the wires.
Tension increased as it started to get dark and a heavy downpour followed, making it extra difficult to cover what was going on in an open field. I was already soaking wet but I was more concerned about my equipment getting wet as well. Definitely not a good time for the cameras to mess up.
I began to think that this wouldn’t be finished soon, but I continued to imagine hostages coming out from the bus as I peered through a 500mm lens.
At a little after 8pm, the bus driver, who had escaped through a window, was seen running away from the bus.
A few minutes later, I saw police commandos running towards the bus and taking up their position around the bus. They started smashing the windows and windshields with an axe and traded shots with the lone hostage-taker.
While shooting pictures, the scene was like in a movie set in my mind, with TV flood lights properly set up adding good lighting for us photographers. Except that this was real. I could hear voices of TV and radio reporters describing what they were witnessing and the blow by blow account was heard nationwide.
During a short period of lull, an eerie silence substituted the gunfire. Events happened quickly from that point onwards. I could still hear the return fire from the hostage taker. I saw a civilian being hit by a bullet and carried away to an ambulance. There were more firefights, and afterward a man’s body hung lifelessly by the shattered glass door of the bus.
Immediately after, I saw a few policemen signal to their colleagues to ceasefire. Five seconds later men, women and children who had watched the event unfold live, just like previous coup d’etats in the 80‘s, started racing with the media towards the bus.
Recalling the events that transpired in the 11-hour hostage drama, I wonder what went wrong. It had seemed like it would end well. The hostage taker was a decorated police officer dismissed on charges of extortion. He denied the accusation and demanded reinstatement. In a local radio interview, he said his dismissal had destroyed his career and he would not mind wasting his life now. He did exactly that. Unfortunately, he took with him innocent lives and left behind national shame and a tainted reputation for the country he once served.