A heavily armed man walked into the Resorts World Manila casino in the Philippines capital early Friday, shooting gambling machines and setting fires which resulted in the deaths of 35 people.
Initial relief when police said the incident was not terrorism quickly turned to horror as reports began to emerge of the scores of people found suffocated to death inside the building.
Georgina Alvarez, chief legal officer for Resorts World, choked up as she read the names of the dead to reporters and family waiting outside the casino.
Of the 35 victims, 13 were employees of the casino and 22 were guests. Police have still yet to identify the bodies of six people, including two employees and four guests.
Their bodies were found on the second floor of the building, spread across the casino area, the hallways and a bathroom, police said. They died due to suffocation from smoke when the suspect deliberately set fire to carpets and tables using gasoline he brought with him. The windows were locked.
The injuries of survivors testified to the terror inside the casino, many were hurt breaking windows and jumping from the second floor to escape the fire and smoke.
On Facebook, Resort World employees shared photos of their deceased colleagues. “It’s hard to believe that they have disappeared,” one man commented on a widely shared collage of the victims.
One of the dead was Elizabeth Panlilio Gonzales, wife of Congressman Aurelio “Dong” Gonzales, police confirmed.
Waiting for news
Earlier in the day, friends and family of employees gathered outside the casino building in Pasay City on the southern outskirts of Manila, near the city’s international airport.
The mood was tense and emotional, and the delay in releasing a full list of victims’ names led many worried family members to search hospitals desperately for news of their relatives.
The road that runs along the front of the building was restricted to emergency vehicles, and those taking away the dead. A ferry line that serviced the casino was also halted.
Thomas Orbos, general manager of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), reminded people “to be vigilant.” He added the authority would instruct shopping malls and hotels to be stricter with their security, and that protocols around incidents such as this would be reviewed.
Heightened security checks were already in place for the main metro line that served Pasay City.
Police insisted the attack was not related to terrorism — despite ongoing conflict with ISIS-linked forces in the country’s south.
The incident brings back memories of twin disasters that shook Manila in recent years — both accidental and deliberate.
In 2015, a fire in a footwear factory in a suburb of the Philippine capital killed 72 people. As in Friday’s incident, many of the dead were killed when they became trapped on an upper floor of the building by the blaze, which began when sparks from welding work set alight chemicals in nearby containers.
Five years before that, a former Manila police officer held a busload of tourists from Hong Kong hostage. As the standoff unfolded live on television, Rolando Mendoza began killing hostages and Philippines SWAT officers stormed the bus. By the time the incident was over, eight people were dead and many more injured.
The handling of the hostage crisis by Philippines police was criticized intensely at home and abroad, and the incident hurt the country’s reputation overseas, particularly in Hong Kong, where most of the victims were from.