Monday, February 06, 2006

Gloria: A wakeup call to fight poverty

Stampede probers find security lapses

PRESIDENT Arroyo yesterday said the stampede Saturday in Pasig, which killed 74 people among thousands who flocked to the Philsports arena (formerly ULTRA) for a popular TV show that is giving away cash and prizes, should serve as a wakeup call for everyone to work together in addressing poverty.

"The extent and implications of this tragedy have struck and shocked the whole nation. As we grieve with the families of the victims, let us not forget the compelling circumstances that led to this tragedy. Let us commit ourselves to end despair and raise hope, by joining hands and working together to fight abject poverty," she said.

Arroyo assured the victims and their relatives that justice would be served and those responsible for the incident would be made to pay for their "negligence or misdeeds."

"We must all work together to make sure that such a meaningless tragedy never happens again," she added.

A body asked to investigate the stampede started its probe yesterday and initially found lapses in security measures on the part of the ABS-CBN network which airs the noontime show "Wowowee."

The first anniversary show was cancelled following the stampede that occurred around 6 a.m.

Aside from the 74 fatalities, around 400 were injured.

Authorities estimated the crowd at 25,000 to 30,000. The Philsports has a seating capacity of around 10,000.

Witnesses said chaos broke out when a barricade collapsed as people were being let into the stadium, causing guards to panic and slam shut the gate as the crowd pressed forward.

Director Vidal Querol, Metro Manila police chief, said once people began stumbling on the slope, "they fell like dominoes."

Thousands of fans, most of them poor and from the provinces, had camped out for days for a chance at the show’s usual jackpot of P1 million and special prizes of a car and a house and lot

Senate minority leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said the tragedy reflects the desperation of the great masses of Filipinos to reap instant fortune and escape from grinding poverty.

"The loss of lives and the injuries sustained by scores of others clearly belie the administration’s claim that the economy is in good shape. People would not risk being crushed to death if times were good," he said.

Pimentel said the tragedy should remind government that poverty cannot be licked for as long as scarce resources intended for economic development and job-generating enterprises are dissipated through corrupt practices, and mismanagement.

Rep. Edcel Lagman said "grinding poverty" drives millions to hitch their fortune to chance.

"The long queues of eager participants waiting to join television game shows manifest a culture of luck as balm for want and despair. The death of scores of expectant winners… is a timely and grim reminder for government to prioritize poverty alleviation and sustainable human development," he said.

Caloocan Bishop Deogracias IƱiguez said poverty and the Filipinos’ love for game shows are some of the main reasons why people flocked to Philsports.

"Alam naman natin kung ano ang hatak din ng popularity ng entertainment. They would try to get in to see their favorite entertainers," he said.

"Poverty, yes, it was a strong factor as there was lot at stake for the people that would make it inside ULTRA as they would be given a chance to win millions but it is just one of the many factors," he said.

He also said that the tragedy would have been prevented with better crowd control.

Arroyo ordered the interior department and the PNP to review the protocol on crowd control and on coordination with local government units and event organizers.

She also ordered the social welfare department to identify and assist the families affected by the stampede as she appealed "for coordinated and unified support from the private sector to get these families back on their feet."

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said it was unfair to blame the administration for the incident or even for the poverty that may have driven some people to take their chances in the prizes offered by a TV program.

"Maidagdag ko, ibig sabihin kunwari dun sa kaguluhan sa Nazareno (feast of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila). Pagka-nagkagulo dun at marami namatay, you will blame the government because of the poverty?" he said.

Presidential adviser for political affairs Gabriel Claudio said some groups are dragging government in the tragedy further their personal agenda.

"It is the height of callousness and irresponsibility to try to politicize this tragedy. Napakalayo ng gobyerno sa sirkumstansya ng pangyayari sa ULTRA. The accusation is completely irrational. Government critics should not take advantage of this tragedy to advance their political agenda. It’s simply indecent," he said.

Claudio appealed for the unity that Filipinos showed when they supported and prayed for boxer Manny Pacquiao in his fight last month with Mexican Erik Morales in Las Vegas.

"Let us use the same unity to help those who lost their loved ones as well as those who were injured, and together let us fortify our resolve and capabilities to ensure that no such tragedy befalls our countrymen again," he said.

Marius Corpuz, interior undersecretary for peace and order, said the fact-finding body was not intended to find whatever criminal liability ABS-CBN may have but rather to come up with remedial measures to avoid similar incidents.

"Hindi kami ang magpi-pinpoint, it will be the DOJ. We will not say anything na ito kailangang idemanda criminally. We will just submit our findings to the DOJ and, of course, together with the remedial measures that we think should be done to avoid a repetition of the incident. I cannot speculate at this time kung ano and what kind of offense, much more the penalty," he said.

One of Corpuz’s observations was that it was the first time that the "LRP entrance gate " of Philsports arena was used to accommodate people. It was meant to be a vehicular entrance or exit.

"So now as to why they decided to use that for pedestrian entrance, that’s what we have to ask them kasi ang sabi nung taga-ULTRA ang nag-decide nun ay yung taga ABS-CBN," Corpuz said.

Second,ABS-CBN show organizers failed to invite representatives from the PNP or the Metro Manila Development Authority during three coordinating conferences with the arena’s management, the last of which was held Friday night, he said.

Corpuz said since the ABS-CBN management and Philsports officials met without the PNP, it was agreed upon that the TV network would be in charge on the perimeter security, while Philsports would be responsible for security inside.

Third, Corpuz said the main stadium, which was to be used as the main show venue, was already packed with at least 6,500 people or at least three fourths of its total capacity even as the main gates were supposed to be opened at around 6 a.m. Saturday.

Fourth, Corpuz said the ABS-CBN organizers should have decided to look for another venue other than the ULTRA since the main stadium has a seating capacity of 9,000, the open bleacher section can accommodate another 8,000, while a lower bleacher section of Ultra can seat another 2,000.

Chief Supt. Oscar Valenzuela, chief of the Eastern Police District, said no further coordination was made with the Pasig City police after a show staff handed over a request for police assistance.

Rene Luspo, ABS-CBN assistant vice president for security, was the first resource person to be grilled by members of the fact-finding board at the DILG main conference room in Quezon City.

Luspo said the LRP gate, which was on Capt. Javier street, was the "most logical" entrance because it leads to the open bleacher section even if it has a 30-degree downward slope with an entrance measuring between 10 and 12 feet wide.

"It is the most logical entrance since there was no other gate to be used," he said.

Luspo said he expected about 25,000 to show up, based on the average 5,000 people coming to watch the show live Mondays to Saturdays.

He said the "overspill crowd" or those who were outside the steel barricades they had set up started to push their way in for fear that they might not be accommodated.

He said those inside the steel barricades had been there for the past days. They were mostly women, elderly, and those carrying children.

He said he deployed 12 guards at the entrance gates where the stampede occurred.

Luspo said he assumed that since Senior Supt. Raul Medina, Pasig City police chief, deployed 83 policemen, 50 district mobile force men, 25 traffic enforcers, 20 barangay tanod, and a number rescue teams, the police should know how to react in situations like a stampede.

"If you are facing a siksikan crowd, we can see the results, but we cannot really see how it started," Luspo said.

Luspo said they had requested the Pasig government to allow them to use an open space at the Capitol site where they could accommodate 10,000 people, but it was turned down because Pasig authorities feared the crowd could not be controlled.

The Pasig government later on agreed that the Capitol site open space could be used as a parking area. He said that as early as Monday (January 30) he visited the area where he said some 1,000 people had already gathered.

He said the crowd increased by the day until it reached 10,000 Friday evening when they had the emergency meeting with Ultra officials.

He said they deployed 107 ABS-CBN security personnel as early as Thursday night –23 along Captain Javier street, 77 along St. Martin street, four inside Ultra, and the rest at the perimeter.

Ultra management said they placed six male and female guards at the Capt. Javier street entrance to frisk studio guests.

Luspo said he did not have a written copy of his contingency plan.

"The planning doesn’t have to be in writing most of the time. We just sit down consider options, and decide," Luspo said.

He said the ABS-CBN guards were in charge of crowd control outside and led people to the proper entrance gates.

He said he was not personally present at the Captain Javier entrance but was at the St. Martin side "because in my assessment it was more critical because of the wide opening."

He said they tried to persuade people to calm down and explained the limited seating capacity, but their pleas apparently fell on deaf ears.

He said ABS-CBN and ULTRA officials agreed to open the gates at 5 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. but the Ultra guards were not yet prepared to open the gates as they were still holding a briefing.

"The idea was to relieve the pressure pero hindi pa nagbukas ng maaga kasi they (ULTRA) were not able to post their guards," he said.

Next to take the testify was Marilou Almaden, Wowowee production manager, who said the crowd began to swell at past midnight Saturday.

She said they tried to urge the crowd not be rowdy because 40 of those who could be accommodated would have a chance to win P5,000 cash raffle prizes.

She said that during the emergency meeting Friday night, she requested Ultra management to open the gates an hour earlier or at 5 a.m.

But between 3 and 4 a.m., the crowd grew bigger.

Almaden said they considered transferring the show to the Araneta Coliseum but there was no time to complete preparations. – Jocelyn Montemayor, Raymond Africa, Francis Cueto (Malaya) and Reuters

No comments: