MANILA, Philippines - The mix-up in the labeling of coffins of 3 out of 8 victims in the August 23 hostage crisis could be due to the use of fax machines to send images of victims who were not personally identified by their next of kin.
Funeral parlor general manager Harold Manipol said 5 out of the 8 victims were brought to the St. Harold Memorial Chapel in Paco, Manila.
Two of the 5 victims, both female, were easily identified by their next of kin.
But with respect to 3 victims, all male, there were no next of kin who identified the bodies.
Manipol said they then asked the Chinese embassy for photographs so they could identify the bodies.
Manipol said the Chinese embassy sent them images via the fax machine. Naturally, the images they got were dark.
He said they then asked the Chinese embassy for the passports of the 3 victims.
Manipol said 2 representatives of the Chinese embassy came to the funeral parlor but did not have the passports with them. Thus, he said they asked the embassy representatives to help them identify the victims.
Had the Chinese embassy given them colored photographs of the victims, Manipol believes the alleged mix-up would not have happened.
Since the Chinese embassy was in a rush, Manipol said they based their identification on the descriptions from the autopsies of the victims.
Manipol said this could be the reason for the mix-up.
'Chinese embassy also at fault'
"I requested them na, 'hanapin ninyo ang passport.' Nang nagpadala sila, nag-fax sila ng passport , pero blurred siya. Binase ko na lang sa profile ng mukha. May square. Iyong isa, medyo bilog ang mukha. So sabi ko, 'ito 'to'. Then we put the label sa mga boxes," Manipol said.
He said the Chinese embassy personnel, whose names he failed to get, should also be blamed for the mix-up since they assisted in identifying the bodies.
On Thursday, after the coffin mix-up was reported, Manipol said somebody from Hong Kong called and informed him of "problems in transporting" the bodies.
"Sabi ko, as far as I'm conderned, sabi ko sa mga Chinese [media], hindi kami ang nagkaproblema doon. Sabi ko sa identification may tulong ang Chinese embassy representative... Sila ang nagmamando sa amin," he said.
Philippine authorities, meanwhile, have not determined the cause of the mix-up.
Bodies identified by kin or embassy
In an interview with ANC's World Tonight late Thursday, Social Welfare and Development Secretary Corazon "Dinky" Soliman said the government is still investigating the incident.
"Right now, we don't know if it did occur. There is no confirmation from the parties in Hong Kong. We have not been told officially," Soliman said.
"As far as I can recall, the bodies were identified by relatives and/or officials from the embassy with the passport picture," she added.
In an interview with the Associated Press earlier on Thursday, Soliman said that "if there was a mix-up of those names, we apologize."
"It was really the desire to facilitate and bring the bodies to Hong Kong as quickly as possible because that will ease the pain of the families," she told the AP.
3 coffins mislabeled
A Hong Kong government spokesman said early Thursday that 3 coffins used to bring back Hong Kong tourists killed in last week's Philippine hostage crisis had been mislabeled.
The mix-up was discovered after the family of one victim went to a Hong Kong mortuary for their dead relative only to find the coffin contained the body of another victim of last week's hijacking.
A senior Hong Kong official and weeping relatives had laid wreaths on the mislabeled coffins at a somber airport ceremony in Hong Kong last week.
"Three of the coffins were wrongly labeled," a government spokesman told AFP. "When the bodies were at the mortuary in Hong Kong, the error was discovered."
Funeral parlor at fault?
The blunder was made at a Manila funeral parlor before the bodies were flown to Hong Kong, the spokesman said, most likely when the victims were transferred from plain coffins to more elaborate caskets.
Philippine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who is heading the hostage incident probe, said she was unaware of any mislabeling.
"There is no such indication in the reports that we received so far, but we can always verify that and that can be part (of the ongoing investigation)," she said, adding that "it has to be a really thorough and comprehensive investigation."
Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine National Red Cross, said the victims' bodies were correctly labeled before they were brought to the funeral parlor, but could not verify if the coffins had been properly tagged.
"They were identified in the hospitals by the travel agency and the family members," Pang said.
"The family members claimed (the bodies) in the hospitals and then they were sent out for post-mortem care."
The hostage ordeal on August 23 began when sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza hijacked a bus with 22 Hong Kong tourists and three Filipinos on board in the heart of Manila.
The day-long drama was played out on television screens around the world and ended in a botched rescue attempt riddled with police errors.
The deaths of Hong Kong tourists triggered public outrage over the mishandling of the crisis and investigations into whether the hostages were killed by Mendoza or by police weapons.
The Philippine government has admitted to making a number of errors in its handling of the crisis, which has chilled diplomatic ties with Hong Kong and damaged the southeast Asian nation's tourism industry.