A tall, hooded gunman set fire to a VIP gaming room at Resorts World Manila on Friday, igniting a toxic blaze that killed 37 people including the assailant, in an incident that authorities said was a robbery case and not a terrorist attack.
On Friday evening, however, the Islamic State’s Amaq news agency said the international terrorist group was behind the attack, despite repeated denials by the police, the military and Malacañang.
Still, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said security forces were on high alert, as he called on the public to stay calm and avoid spreading rumors.
“Let us not be unwitting tools of terror by spreading false rumors, like claiming that the Resorts World [incident]is terror-related. Such claims and announcements don’t help,” he told reporters.
The victims suffocated inside one of the main gambling venues of the upscale Resorts World Manila in Pasay City, while dozens of other people were injured in a panicked crush to escape, police said.
The gunman committed suicide inside a hotel room by burning himself about five hours after storming the casino with an M4 assault rifle and a bottle of fuel that he used to start the fire, Philippine National Police Chief Ronald de la Rosa said.
Later de la Rosa and Metro Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde separately told reporters outside the casino-hotel the incident was simply a robbery attempt, by a “deranged” man, gone wrong.
De la Rosa explained the gunman did not fire shots at anyone but at closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras installed in the gaming area and at the door of the stock room where he found and picked up gambling chips, later recovered and estimated by police to be worth about P113 million ($2.3 million).
“It is too early to say that this is a terror attack…if this was a terror attack, [the gunman]could have killed people inside the casino and burned the whole building,” de la Rosa told reporters.
However 36 people died from inhaling smoke from a fire that spread quickly because of flammable carpet on the gaming room floors, Southern Police District Chief Supt. Tomas Apolinario told Agence France-Presse.
Resorts World Chief Operating Officer Stephen Reilly confirmed the victims died of suffocation and that their bodies were recovered from the gaming floors of the establishment.
Albayalde said that from the CCTV images, the tall, hooded gunman operated alone throughout the whole incident.
“If he were a terrorist, he would have strapped a bomb or TNT onto himself and detonated himself to inflict more damage,” Albayalde said.
The gunman initially disappeared into the chaos of smoke and running people, leading to a five-hour manhunt through the complex, which also includes a hotel and shops, according to de la Rosa.
He said the assailant, who appeared to be a foreigner because he spoke English and looked Caucasian, was found just before dawn in Room 510 of Maxims Hotel having committed suicide.
“He lay down on the bed, covered himself with a thick blanket, apparently poured fuel on the blanket and burned himself,” de la Rosa said.
He said the man walked into one of the gaming rooms and fired the rifle at a large television screen, then poured gasoline onto a gambling table and set it alight.
He said the man then fired again at a stock room containing gambling chips and filled a backpack with the chips worth P113 million.
The man left the room and went upstairs to the hotel section, but left the backpack, according to de la Rosa.
Congressman’s wife among dead
De la Rosa said 18 of 54 injured people were in hospital. Others sustained only minor injuries.
Four of the victims were from Taiwan, according to the Taiwanese government.
One of the fatalities was the wife of Rep. Aurelio “Dong” Gonzales of Pampanga.
The fatalities were brought to Rizal Funeral Homes and Veronica Funeral Homes on Libertad Street in Pasay City.
Carlos Cabrera, director of Rizal Funeral Homes, said his office received 10 bodies, whose identifies were not yet known.
At Veronica Funeral Homes, seven cadavers were brought, including that of the assailant.
Steffen Sison rushed to Veronica to look for his father, Rolando Peña Sison, a retired businessman found at the casino’s VIP room on the second floor of the complex.
“I talked to my daddy before the incident and he knows I was supposed to pick him up. But a few minutes later I learned that a terrorist went inside Resorts World and I called up my daddy, but his phone was dead,” Steffen said in Filipino.
People inside the casino recounted a terrifying ordeal when the shooting broke out.
“I was about to return to the second floor from my break when I saw people running. Some hotel guests said someone yelled ‘ISIS,’” Maricel Navaro, an employee of Resorts World, told dzMM radio. ISIS is another acronym for the Islamic State group.
“When we smelled smoke, we decided to go for the exit in the carpark. That’s where we got out. Before we exited, we heard two gunshots and there was thick smoke on the ground floor,” Navaro said.
Outside the complex, relatives of people trapped waited on Friday to hear news of their loved ones.
“Our daughter called us past midnight saying she was in the VIP section of the casino and there was smoke and they were suffocating,” Gil Yongco, 42, said.
“We are very worried about her. We haven’t heard from her.”
Their daughter, Hazel, died, authorities announced later.
‘Spirit cannot be defeated’
Travellers International Hotel Group, Inc., the parent company of gaming firm Resorts World Manila, said on Friday its spirit could not be defeated, and expressed grief over the incident.
“This cowardly act of a deranged mind will not defeat the spirit on which Resorts World Manila was built. With your prayers, we will overcome this tragedy,” the company said in a disclosure to the Philippine Stock Exchange.
“We ask for your understanding during this difficult time,” the company added.
Malacañang also extended its sympathies to the families of those who died in the attack.
“The Palace wishes to express its deep condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the Resorts
World Manila’s latest incident,” Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a statement.
“This is a reminder that civilized society has no place for this kind of violence. Thus, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has put the campaign against criminality as a centerpiece program of his administration,” he added.
Nerilyn Tenorio, DEMPSEY REYES, CATHERINE S. VALENTE, JAIME R. PILAPIL, LLANESCA T. PANTI, ANGELICA BALLESTEROS AND AFP