Survivors smashed through windows to flee as dozens perished trapped by fire in a casino in Manila.
A heavily armed man walked into the Resorts World Manila early Friday in the Philippine capital, shooting gambling machines and setting fires that resulted in the deaths of 37 people.
Police insisted the attack was not related to terrorism despite ongoing conflict with ISIS-linked forces in the country’s south.
But ISIS claimed responsibility late Friday. A statement from the ISIS-affiliated Amaq News Agency said “Islamic State fighters” carried out the attack.
Police said casino security shot and wounded the gunman, who then retreated to a hotel room and doused himself in gasoline and died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
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 37 victims, management said 13 were casino employees while the rest were guests. Police haven’t identified 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 spoke to the terror inside the casino, with many 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, the wife of Aurelio “Dong” Gonzales, a congressman, police said.
Grief and anger
At a funeral home near the casino complex, relatives and friends of the victims gathered to mourn.
Maricel Navarro, a manager at the resort, said her partner of seven years, Hazel Yongco, was among the dead. Yongco was trapped on the second floor by the smoke engulfing the casino area. Navarro said she begged SWAT team members to help those upstairs but the smoke was too thick.
Friends and relatives of the victims expressed anger at what they said was poor security at the casino. Emy Subi, whose cousin Rogie Subay was killed, said she wanted to sue the resort.
In a statement, Resorts World Manila said there was “no lapse in the security inside the establishment” and praised staff for helping to contain the incident.
Waiting for news
Earlier Friday, the mood was tense and emotional as friends and family of employees waited outside the casino in Pasay City on the southern outskirts of Manila near the city’s international airport.
The delay in releasing a full list of victims’ names led many worried relatives to search hospitals desperately for news of their loved ones.
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, reminded people “to be vigilant.” He added the authority would instruct shopping malls and hotels to be stricter with their security and that protocols would be reviewed.
Heightened security checks were already in place for the main metro line that served Pasay City.
Friday’s horror brings back memories of twin disasters that shook Manila in recent years.
In 2015, a fire in a footwear factory in a suburb of the Philippine capital killed 72 people. 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 afire chemicals in nearby containers.
Five years earlier, 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. Eight people were dead and many others injured.
The police’s handling of the hostage crisis was criticized intensely at home and abroad, and it hurt the country’s reputation overseas, particularly in Hong Kong.