Tuesday 24 August 2010

Shocker in Manila: Philippines Bus Siege Plays Out Horribly

Couldn’t sleep, perhaps because of the horror, so I thought I’d blog about what I’d just witnessed on live TV about the tragic and dreadful event in Manila.

Philippine police end Manila bus hijack of Hong Kong tourists

Not since 9/11 have I been totally captivated by live TV events of an impending disaster about to unfold. But Monday night 8/23 in Hong Kong brought back memories of being captivated by live TV and being drawn into the imminent terror of a tragic event.

This time it was the storming of a hijacked bus in what seemed to be surreal scenes from a movie … only this wasn’t fictional. I caught the action just after 730pm (HK time) when the two English news programmes on TVB Pearl and ATV World reported the hostage situation of a Hong Kong tour bus in the Philippines that started earlier in the day. Then I switched over (alternating) between the two Chinese channels on TVB Jade and ATV Home because they were showing the event live.

But what struck me as odd was the way the Philippines police (or Filipino SWAT team) operated. Perhaps I have been exposed to too many Hollywood action movies or influenced by the solid reputation of French Commandos, but watching the Filipino SWAT team operate did not fill me with a sense that they knew what they were doing.

The thing is, there didn’t appear to be any coordinated plan about how to storm the bus.

All they did was use hammers in an attempt to break some side windows, the main door and the windscreen. But these attempts failed, so for about 30 minutes the scene was of the main SWAT team squatting low down against the side of the bus and waiting for instructions about what to do next. [Contrast this to French Commandos taking less than 10 minutes to storm a hijacked oil tanker or aircraft]

[Pic 1. The Filipino SWAT team begin their assault … by using hammers to try to break through side windows and…]

[Pic 2. … through the main door and windscreen. Note: the body lying behind the main door. While watching the scenes live on Hong Kong TV, I did not notice the body behind the main door … and neither, it appears, did the police.]

After about 30 minutes of indecision, a member of the Filipino SWAT team tied a rope around the frame of the main doors. He did this without wearing a helmet and was therefore dangerously exposing himself. The other end of the rope was then tied to a vehicle, with the plan being to pull off the main doors. But before this could happen, some bright spark figured out that there was a release mechanism on the outside of the bus (just above the SWAT team members’ heads ... see Pic 1) that opened the emergency exit door at the back of the bus.

So, the plan to pull off the main doors was quickly rejected in favour of opening the emergency exit door. Even so, they still needed a vehicle to back up sideways against the bus to completely unhinge the back door. Once the back door was fully prised opened, the SWAT team entered cautiously. About three SWAT team members entered and then quickly exited as gunfire broke out.

[Pic 3. The emergency exit door at the back of the bus is forced open. One side window is riddled with bullet holes as gunfire force SWAT team members out and to retreat.]

One of the side windows is then riddled with bullet holes and a brief standoff again elapses. Later, teargas is seen rising out of the bus windows and then more gunfire. A gruesome scene appears as a body (apparently, the hijacker) slumps halfway through the main doors, seemingly dripping with blood. This whole operation to stop the hijacker—starting off with using hammers to break the windows—took about 90 minutes.

At least four hostages are seen walking out but (as of 9pm HK time) it is not clear how many have survived this tragedy.

NB: To be clear, I am not criticizing the Filipino SWAT team’s valiant efforts. I am just recalling my memories of the events that unfolded before my eyes live on the TV screen.


  1. I think the whole rescue op looks like a gigantic mess on TV. The so called SWAT team looked utterly ill prepared, undecided, and unsure of how to proceed to get the hostages to safety. It was terrible watching them act as I stared flabberghasted at the whole playout before me. Couldnt they have tear the bus within the first hour? Why did the police try to enter the rear of the bus so unprepared and then scurried out like chased rats of the bus after a few fired gunshots? The hoastage taker was in plain sight several times, even if they didnt have to shoot him dead then, it would be nice to shot him with a sedative since talk was getting no where. Perhaps its too early to judge but I will say they whole stakeout appeared terribly incompetent with a squad only firing when one their own got shot.
    I'm not even sure if the dead victims are all shot by the hostage taker or did they die in the process of cross fire. Like you, I too toggle between the channels for updates. I was most motified to hear some guy laughing in the background during the live media reporting..

  2. Thanks Nomad. I also heard someone laughing and couldn't believe it. If someone was laughing at the misfortune of others, then that really is low brow. However, some people react to traumatic situations by (nervous) laughing, so perhaps that might be one reason for the laughing?

  3. Sadly the Philippines seems to be, generally, a bit of a mess... not a failed state, but a central government which doesn't seem to be able to get anything done, corruption everywhere, and the few rich families doing basically what they want. This may be a symptom of that.

  4. I reckon you’re spot on AW. Corruption persists in the Philippines and the central government is hamstrung because it appears that those at the top also partake and may be implicated in all the sleaze … otherwise they apparently wouldn’t be where they are and have what they’ve got. I’m amazed that people consciously choose to visit the country considering that there are similar destinations in Asia and around the world where personal safety is relatively better.

    Reference: thoughts about “safe” Philippines by Private Beach

  5. The central government is very weak, and the rich families pretty much swap the government between themselves. Witness the number of relos who are also politicians - always a baaaad sign. And yes, corruption is all pervasive, and eats away at everything.

    Personal safety isn't all that great unless you are in the "good" areas of Manila from what I have heard. The enormous wealth disparity doesn't help.