MANILA, Philippines – Most of those who survived Monday’s tragic hostage drama returned home to Hong Kong along with the remains of eight slain tourists yesterday, while authorities grappled with outrage over police mishandling of the rescue and botched negotiations with the gunman.
The victims’ next of kin, a majority of the Hong Kong residents who survived the incident, their relatives and some Hong Kong government officials who arrived in Manila after the incident also left the country.
Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo and Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman were among the government officials who attended the simple send-off ceremony at the tarmac of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).
The Philippine government has provided full assistance to the victims and their families, including the immediate repatriation of the remains of those who perished, shouldering the hospitalization, accommodations and other expenses of the injured and their relatives, and psychosocial counseling to all who were affected by the incident.
Earlier, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) issued a statement offering deep condolences to the government and people of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the People’s Republic of China.
“As earlier conveyed to Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, the Filipino nation join Hong Kong and its people in this time of grief, and reiterate their deep regret over the loss of innocent lives in this tragic event,” the DFA said.
President Aquino, facing his first major crisis since taking office on June 30, also issued Proclamation 23, declaring yesterday a National Day of Mourning in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines flew the flag at half-mast inside all military camps as they “extend their deepest sympathy to the victims’ families.”
The President also considered providing financial restitution to the victims as a way of helping them cope with what happened.
“That is actually a thought that I had coming into the office today. I will ask both the Executive Secretary and the DBM (budget department) to study the matter – see what resources and what restitution we can give to those who have lost members of their family and to those who would be trying to recover from this tragedy,” the President said.
Robredo, meanwhile, acknowledged that the police were ill-prepared and that a series of lapses might have instigated the bloodshed Monday when the hostage-taker, a disgruntled ex-policeman demanding his job back, killed eight bus passengers and shot others before police snipers killed him.
Nine other passengers had been released hours earlier and seven were rescued from the bullet-riddled bus, three of them in serious condition.
One of the wounded will remain at the Manila Doctors Hospital in Manila, and another will be brought back on a medivac plane, according to Hong Kong Undersecretary for Security T.K. Lai.
The rest will fly aboard a chartered plane to Hong Kong later in the night after a stress debriefing, a Buddhist ceremony and a sendoff by military officers at the Manila airport.
Soliman said those who survived the harrowing hostage-taking incident are psychologically traumatized but she is confident that they will recover from the experience.
Workers at a funeral parlor loaded the coffins into wooden boxes for the flight home. They left for the airport in a caravan of hearses led by a police car. A small group of about 10 people belonging to the Buddhist sect Tzu Tze, hands clasped in front of their chests, chanted Buddhist mantras.
China, disgruntled over the handling of the incident, demanded a full investigation. The Chinese ambassador visited President Aquino on Tuesday, and the President talked on the phone with Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang.
Robredo acknowledged that there were problems with how the crisis was handled.
“Had we been better prepared, better equipped, better trained, maybe the response would have been quicker despite the difficulty. All the inadequacies happened at the same time,” he said.
Manila Police District Chief Superintendent Rodolfo Magtibay offered to go on leave while the investigation was ongoing. The assault firearms used by police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) operatives will be subjected to ballistic tests to determine if some of the hostages were hit by police gunfire.
Autopsies conducted on victims
Britain’s Foreign Office said that two of the hostages who were released were British nationals.
Three of the fatalities were Canadian, according to Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Senior Supt. Agrimero Cruz.
The other victims were all Hong Kong residents who sustained gunshot wounds in different parts of the body.
Cruz said autopsy has been conducted on all the fatalities but relatives of three of the Hong Kong residents asked not to open their bodies.
“The families of the three fatalities, for some personal or religious reasons, refused to allow the bodies of their beloved to be opened for autopsy but they were examined postmortem, meaning physical examination,” Cruz added.
Pia Lee-Brago, Philippine Star