Photographers' Blog

Routine hostage crisis turns deadly

August 23, 2010

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.

Tourists taken hostage look out from a window after a former police officer took hostage a tourist bus in Manila August 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Erik de Castro

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.

A police officer turned into a hostage taker stands at the entrance of a bus containing passengers who have been taken hostage while parked near Quirino Grandstand in Manila August 23, 2010.   REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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.

A hostage walks away from the bus after being released during the hostage taking at Quirino Grandstand in Manila August 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Erik de Castro

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.

Members of the Philippine media are seen during a hostage taking situation in Manila August 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Erik de Castro

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.

The bus driver of the bus with tourists being held hostage runs for his life after escaping from the bus at Quirino Grandstand in Manila August 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo

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.

A police commando tries to break down the door of a bus as a body lies inside during the assault on a bus with tourists being held hostage at Quirino Grandstand in Manila August 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Erik de Castro

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.

The body of former police officer Rolando Mendoza hangs from the door of the tourist bus which he took hostage in Manila August 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Erik de Castro

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.

A policeman signals ceasefire to colleagues after the former police officer who took a tourist bus hostage was killed in Quirino Grandstand in Manila August 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Erik de Castro

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.

Comments
4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Incredible first-hand story – Thanks for your braveness Erik.

Lucas
http://www.pictobank.com

Posted by Photoluc | Report as abusive
 

” I am not ashamed to be a filipino….. I’m ashamed that someone like mendoza is called a filipino….

Posted by aid21 | Report as abusive
 

11 hours! such a harrowing experience for the hostages, the hostage-taker, police and media. such a shame. the police should be equipped with proper training and gear. the media is also getting part of the blame for the bloody outcome but come to think of it, the vulnerabilities of the police force wouldn’t have been exposed if not for the media. but of course, there should be some limits on what they can show and tell the public while a crisis is happening.

Posted by Isabel70 | Report as abusive
 

your blog was too good. i really appreciate with your blog.Thanks for sharing.

Right hand drive buses from japan

Posted by GLOBALSTARLTD | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  • Editors & Key Contributors