Philippines TV show turns to tragedy

Housewife Esperanza Marasigan wailed in despair as she searched for her missing relatives among the scores of people crushed to death in a stampede at a television game show in the Philippines on Saturday.

“Help us, help us. I think my sister is dead,” Marasigan cried, as hundreds of others milled around outside a Manila sports stadium that became a death trap for fans who had lined up for days for a chance to become a millionaire.

Like tens of thousands of others mostly from depressed urban communities, Marasigan and six of her relatives went to watch the Wow-wow-wee show for a chance to win cash prizes and secure a better life.

But her dreams ended in tears when at least 88 people were killed and more than 200 injured in a stampede as the crowd scrambled for prime seats.

“We were hoping to get a chance to win money, we never thought this would turn out to be a nightmare,” Marasigan said.

Around her, relatives of the some of the dead stood sobbing uncontrollably or in hysterics.

As bodies were brought out of the stadium they were placed on a litter-strewn street outside and covered with plastic bags or newspapers. Some had their driving licences or other ID cards placed on their chests for quick identification before being taken to nearby hospitals.

Piles of discarded clothing, bags and shoes littered the scene.

One paramedic tried to get Merquiades Salazar to let go of the body of his wife, Jocelyn Salazar (42) but he was too distraught.
The victim’s 17-year-old son, Melvin, tried to console his father.

“We were just coming to have a good time with the family,” the son said.

Between sobs Salazar said the family had come with the hope of winning one of the cash prizes to better their lives. “We are poor people and now I have lost my wife.”

Another man continued stroking his dead wife’s head and talking to his shocked little boy as tears streamed down his face.

Nearby police barked orders on a megaphone, desperately trying to disperse a thick crowd of relatives and onlookers who were blocking ambulances and rescue teams.

Air force rescue personnel carried the dead to a waiting military vehicle, to be taken to a mortuary for identification while others were being loaded onto a borrowed tow truck.

Most of the victims were middle-aged or elderly women. The eyes were still open in shock on some bodies of the dead.

“These people just didn’t know what hit them,” said one rescue worker.

Some officials said the stampede was triggered when someone shouted “bomb,” but survivors of the incident said it was just the sheer weight of the crowd that forced open the steel gate at the sole entrance of the Ultra stadium.

People then tried to squeeze through the narrow passageway where most of the dead were found.

“The reason for the stampede was a lot of people converging on one spot,” said deputy district police chief Romeo Abaring.

Vendor Vilma Hernandez, who said she had been excitedly lining up for a seat since Thursday, said the crowd was just too thick for the organisers to handle.

“I am still in shock. I saw a lot of dead people. If I had been in front, I would have died. I left just in time. I was vomiting and very exhausted,” she said.

A steel barrier that had prevented the crowd from moving toward the stands, was opened before dawn, causing people to surge forward, toppling over one another. She said many children were also hurt.

Police, military personnel and rescue workers went through the victims’ clothing to find any identification cards that could give a name to the dead. Those that could not be identified remained on the street.

Showbiz personalities are regularly elected to public office in the Philippines, and the show’s popular host Willie Revillame declared that the show must go on.

But he went on air nearly two hours late, apologising to the packed stadium while sobbing at the centre of the stage. The show was then cancelled out of respect for the dead.

Wow-wow-wee hands out cash to winners, and the top prize for Saturday was to have been a million pesos ($19 250) as well as houses and mini-buses—a kingly sum in a country where 40% live on two dollars a day. - AFP

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