Hostage survivor's story of the Manila (Philippines) bus hostage crisis

James Ryan Jonas

Here are excerpts from the first-person account of a survivor in the bus hostage-taking incident at Quirino Grandstand in Manila, Philippines.
Lee Ying-chuen was one of 25 Hong Kong tourists aboard the Hong Tai bus that was taken hostage by Rolando Mendoza. Her story of their ordeal inside the bus was published last week in the Chinese newspaper Ming Pao Daily News.
In the article titled “Give justice to the victims, Not direct anger at the weak,” Lee Ying-chuen lambasted the Philippine government and the Manila police for their incompetence but called on Hong Kong citizens not to blame Filipino citizens, especially the Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong.
Excerpts from her story:
Rolando Mendoza was initially kind to the hostages
“Through the interpretation of our local guide, we learned that [Mendoza] was a policeman who had been dismissed unfairly.  He was originally scheduled to retire in January next year.  He wanted the government to re-open his case, give him his job back and restore his 1 million peso pension payment.
The gunman apologized to us many times.  He said that he did not really want this to happen to us.  He only needed us to help him force the government to pay attention to his case.  He emphasized repeatedly that he would not harm anyone as long as we cooperate with him.
During the first few hours, the gunman was calm when he spoke on the phone.  Often times he smiled.  He kept saying, “Ok, ok.”  This reassured us.  Periodically he would emphasize again that he would not hurt us.”
I planned on simply kicking him out of the bus!
“Several times the gunman opened the front door of the bus and stood on the steps.  I really wanted to race up behind him and kick him out.  I rehearsed the move many times in my mind.  But I was afraid that I could not communicate with the driver and I was worried that he would not be alert enough to close the door and drive away immediately, leaving the time for the gunman to counter-attack … I thought about many possibilities.  In the end, I took no action.  This may just be an excuse for my fear and cowardice.
Time dragged on without any sign of resolution.  The team mates at the rear of the bus discussed several times about subduing the gunman.  We noticed that he always carried his weapons on him.  We determined the best spot to attack him.  We looked for objects around us to use as weapons.  I said that although I am short and weak, if the guys can hold him down, I can grab his gun and hold his hand down so that the people in front of the bus can escape.  Mr. Leung also instructed his children to assist during our assault.  But in the end, we wavered and did not do anything, all because the gunman kept moving the stated deadline back and back while waiting for a government response.”
And then the shooting rampage began
“Sometime between 5pm and 6pm, the gunman got the tour leader Masa Tse to move from the last seat to the front.  The gunman handcuffed Tse to the front door in an attempt to scare the government.  He said on the phone: “Five minutes!” The gunman never asked for our names.  He only counted the number of persons.  Perhaps he needed to cite the number of hostages in his negotiations.  Five minutes passed.  He did not shoot anyone.  He made many more phone calls with the outside.  After more than half an hour, he got more agitated.  I sensed that he was getting angrier.  The television was still on, showing the live coverage of the incident.  After another half hour, he still did not take any action other than speaking on the phone.
The television showed the police arresting his younger brother.  He probably saw that.  But what led him to start shooting was a phone call.  He hung up and immediately took out his gun.  “Bang!” The first shot killed the tour leader.  Then he walked from the front to the back, shooting at the passengers.  Mr. Leung and some other men rushed forward to stop him.  I heard “Bang!  Bang!  Bang!”  The men fell down on the floor.”
More shots, more dead victims
“After the gunman fired the first volley and killed the first group of person, it became dead quiet inside the bus.  There was no sound for several minutes.  From underneath my seat, I saw that Jessie Leung was also hiding like me.  Maybe she thought that it was safe.  She saw that her elder brother Jason was motionless after the first volley.  She thought he was dead.  So after a while, she came out to check her brother.  I saw clearly that she got shot as soon as she rose up from her place.  She fell down on the ground, her body still writhing.  The gunman added another shot on her.  She didn’t move anymore …
Looking at the immobile bodies in front of me, I automatically began to say the Buddhist chants so that the dead ones can reach the opposite shore quickly.  This was my long-time custom whenever someone passes away.  I wondered without reflection, Are they really dead? Several minutes ago, they were still alive.  Are their souls still wandering around inside the bus? I kept repeating the Heart Prayer slowly, one word at a time … I thought about all the things that I still cannot bear to leave behind.  I thought about all the things that I still wanted to do.  I thought about my beloved family and friends.  Of course, it would be better not to die.  But I was no longer as scared as I was initially.  I was most concerned about my mother who was coughing from the two tear gas assaults and might be detected by the gunman.

After a while, I heard people calling out “Police!  Police!” Then someone helped me get out of the tour bus.  My mother followed me.”
Regrets and realizations…

“I have reviewed the incident in my mind many times over the past several days.  I am extreme angry and sad.  I also have an indescribable regret.  I kept thinking, Why didn’t we take action to save ourselves?  Why did we hand our fates over to an incompetent government during the long waiting process and quietly wait for the help that never came?
Some of us actually did think about taking action to subdue the gunman.  So why did we waver?  Because we were afraid, because we thought that the gunman did not really want to kill anyone, because we thought that the matter would be peacefully resolved and, of course, our biggest mistake was to overestimate the capabilities of the local police.
I realized finally that even though I had some colleagues from the Philippines, I and most Hong Kong people know almost nothing about that country.  There are more than one hundred thousand Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong and they live with our families.  But we have never cared about this country and its people who provide us with a large number of cheap laborers.  We know that the Philippines is poor and that is why they export domestic workers all over the world.  But how poor?  I checked and I found out that one-third of its people live below the poverty line.  Killings and kidnapping occur on a daily basis.  Under such circumstances, why kind of life do the people have?
Over the past several days, Hong Kong has been both angry and sad over this Manila hostage incident.  Although I have not discussed with other team members, I am sure that we are grateful for the concern and support of the citizens.  But the way to comfort the souls of the dead is not to blame the innocent Filipina domestic helpers and the people of the Philippines.  Our focus should be clearly on the Philippines government and its police.  We want a fair and proper investigation.  We want to an account of the responsibility in the incident.  We want to provide for the future of the injured persons as well as the families of the deceased.  This is how we show our concern for the casualties in this incident.
In the long run, we should support the people of the Philippines to build a more trustworthy government and a more just society.  This is how Hong Kong truly becomes a member of the international community and a cosmopolitan city with humanitarian concerns.”
Image Source: Ming Pao News
Full Transcript: Chinese | English
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James Ryan Jonas teaches business management, investments, and entrepreneurship at the University of the Philippines (UP). He is also the Executive Director of UP Provident Fund Inc., managing and investing P3.2 Billion ($56.4 Million) worth of retirement funds on behalf of thousands of UP employees.