Manila casino robbery: Mayhem - and a dark rush to safety

Relatives of one of the 36 victims who died are left distraught yesterday in the wake of the attack at the Resorts World Manila.
Relatives of one of the 36 victims who died are left distraught yesterday in the wake of the attack at the Resorts World Manila.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Even from a distance of about 500m, the smell of acrid smoke was unmistakable as it wafted out of a building at Resorts World Manila.

It was the kind that hurts the eye, seeps into the nostrils and sticks for hours on clothes.

One could imagine getting caught smack in the middle of that smoke, with thousands running blind into darkness, gunfire ringing in the air, fire quickly spreading, and the sprinklers not working.

That seems to have been the case with at least 36 people who died after a gunman stormed into a casino floor, and created mayhem with what the authorities say was the thought of revenge and an intent to steal just after midnight yesterday.

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He trained his assault rifle at a large TV set and at the ceiling, and poured petrol from soda bottles on tables and set them on fire.

He then made his way to a room where he knew casino chips were being stored, shot at the door, and began looting the place. He stuffed a backpack he was carrying with 113 million pesos (S$3.2 million) worth of chips, and tried to flee.

By then, thousands were already stampeding towards the exit, and thick, black smoke was beginning to engulf an entire floor of some 300 tables and over 1,700 slot machines.

There was a lot of pushing and shoving. As the smoke spread, windows were smashed - and some people jumped through them in panic.

People streamed out of VIP rooms, and stumbled into darkness. In that sprawling room, even when fully lit, the exits have always been difficult to find. In the darkness, no one was important or special. Among those who did not make it out alive was Ms Elizabeth Panlilio, already in her fifties, wife of Representative Aurelio Gonzales.

A man interviewed at a hospital was being treated for a bone protruding from his left leg. He was among those who jumped.

Ms Marietta Cansino, a casino regular, said she heard gunshots, and then saw smoke. She thought it was tear gas. Then, the lights went out. "Suddenly, it was dark everywhere," she recalled.

People streamed out of VIP rooms, and stumbled into darkness. In that sprawling room, even when fully lit, the exits have always been difficult to find.

In the darkness, no one was important or special. Among those who did not make it out alive was Ms Elizabeth Panlilio, already in her fifties, wife of Representative Aurelio Gonzales. Her sister, who was with her, was still listed as missing.

Mr Jeffrey Santos, who bets at least 20,000 pesos on a hand of cards or a roll of the dice, recalled staring death in the face.

 

He came to within 10m of the gunman, described by police as "tall, big and Caucasian". If the man's intent was just to kill, Mr Santos said he would have been dead by now.

Mr Santos had been looking forward to a quiet evening. He checked into one of the rooms above the casino at 11pm, and was having a meal when the rampage began. Like everyone else, he ran for the nearest exit. He had made his way to the second floor, from the fourth, when he stumbled upon the gunman, already setting tables ablaze.

"He was built like a soldier. He was 10m away, but he wasn't saying anything. He wasn't aiming his gun at anyone. He was calm, and even seemed confident, like he had already accepted he'd eventually get shot," said Mr Santos.

For those waiting outside, the minutes ticked on painfully. Mr Gil Emyongco was at Resorts World Manila just minutes after hearing word of trouble at the casino. His daughter, Hazel, was a table supervisor there.

Reporters found him crying. "Where is my daughter? I haven't heard from her. Where is she?" he wailed. But no one had an answer.

Raul Dancel

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2017, with the headline 'Mayhem - and a dark rush to safety'. Print Edition | Subscribe