When Gil Yongco heard that gunshots were being reported at Resorts World Manila’s hotel – casino where his daughter, Hazel, worked, he immediately rushed to the scene — only to find chaos and the hotel in flames.
There was no one to approach for assistance, and Yongco had to fight off first responders with a desperate father’s determination to see his daughter alive.
“What should I do? No one could tell me anything. But my daughter is still there,” he said, pointing to the hotel, where black smoke continued to billow out from its broken front windows.
“Where is Hazel?” he desperately called out to police officers who, while sympathetic, also did not know how to respond.
Yongco stayed with the press pack with his wife Cathy.
A hotel employee later said she had grabbed Hazel’s phone as they ran out because she dropped it. When she turned back, Hazel was gone.
Hazel, 29, was a table supervisor at Resorts World. She was among those missing since early Friday, when a gunman the police said appeared to be crazy walked into the hotel with an assault rifle and started shooting and setting the place ablaze.
GRIEVING PARENTS Gil and Cathy Yongco —MARIANNE BERMUDEZ
Full combat regalia
Hundreds of policemen and soldiers in full combat regalia trooped to the hotel, one of the premier destinations in Manila fronting its main airport and just a stone’s throw away from the military’s Villamor Air Base.
At least two armored personnel carriers were dispatched to scour the place for any sign of other fighters, but no one has yet been arrested.
Around 5.30 a.m., four people walked out of the hotel, one of them fainting to the ground and rushed to an ambulance. They were shell shocked, caught by surprise by the attack, which came on the 11th day that the military has been battling to retake Marawi City in Mindanao from the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf and Maute gunmen believed backed by a contingent of foreign fighters.
Yongco later conceded that his daughter may be among the 38 casualties in the attack.
“Just give me the body please,” he called on the authorities.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of my sister, Hazel,” her brother Mark told the Inquirer. “There is complete chaos in lawlessness,” in what transpired, he added.
Like Yongco, casino high roller Arianne Johnson, 39, was also searching for some of the eight people she used to hang out with at the casino. She said she only knew her friends by their first names, but that she had grown fond of them on the slot machine floor.
When the alarm sounded, she said people started running from the second floor, as bursts of gunfire rang out. “We were running, people were shouting. It was chaos everywhere,” she said.
“We rushed out when we heard at least four gunshots fired,” Johnson said, adding that she was with a friend who worked at the security department of the casino. They watched the scene unfold on the closed circuit television camera.
The Philippine National Police chief, Director General Ronald dela Rosa, earlier said casino patrons ran screaming after a lone shooter fired an M4 carbine, a shorter version of the M-16 assault rifle, inside the Resorts World Manila complex across the road from Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
He said the crisis was over, hours before the smoke had cleared and the rest of the bodies were found.
“Up to this time, we can’t say this is an act of terror. Why? Because [the gunman] had done no other violent act inside, aside from stealing chips and shooting at a TV. He did not hurt anyone. If you were a terrorist, you want to sow terror. You would have gunned down people,” Dela Rosa insisted.
The man was wearing a backpack and carrying a liter of gasoline which he poured on a gambling table before setting it alight.
“We reviewed [the video] recording, we did not see that he took any hostages. In fact, he passed by some people. He ignored some people,” Dela Rosa said.
The incident sparked a manhunt and hours later, police announced that the gunman had killed himself after firing at security forces.
“He killed himself. At room 510. It looks like he was alone. He fired at our men, ” said Metropolitan Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde. “Our assessment is he burnt himself. He committed suicide,” he said.
Dozens of soldiers and police officers in body armor and carrying rifles deployed around the hotel after reports of a shooting spread quickly through social media.
Two armored personnel carriers could be seen outside the hotel hours after the shooting, which took place as government security forces were locked in a 10-day firefight with militants from the Maute group who were waving the black flag of the Islamic State (IS) in Marawi.
“Right now, we cannot say that he is a member of the Maute,” Dela Rosa said of the casino gunman.
In Washington, US President Donald Trump opened a news conference at the White House by commenting on what he described as “the terror attack in Manila.”
“We are closely monitoring the situation,” Trump said. “It is really very sad as to what’s going on throughout the world, with terror. Our thoughts and our prayers are with all of those affected.”
The US-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors the online communications of extremist groups, reported that “an Islamic State Filipino operative who provides daily updates on the ongoing clashes in Marawi stated that the group (was) responsible for the attack at Resorts World Manila.”
But the police said the claim could be propaganda.
“As far as the Philippine National Police is concerned, we can’t attribute (the attack) to terrorism without concrete evidence. IS can claim anything as part of its propaganda, but until we know the man’s motives, we can’t tell at this early stage,” Dela Rosa said, using another acronym for IS.