Inquiry launched into Philippines stampede

 

The Philippine government has launched an inquiry to determine why 74 people died in a stampede for a popular game show giving away cash and prizes.

Yesterday's tragedy at a stadium in Manila illustrated the desperation of poor Filipinos hoping to win a small fortune or even a minor prize at the first anniversary celebration of the show "Wowowee", commentators and politicians said.

Most of the victims were elderly women who were crushed against a steel gate at the bottom of a slope or trampled underfoot as a crowd as large as 50,000 surged forward to try to get a coveted seat inside the stadium.

Nearly 400 people were injured.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered a five-member panel to submit a report within 72 hours. The fact-finding body was due to interview executives from the ABS-CBN network, the show's host and the chief of security for the event.

"Was there, in the first place, a failure on the part of the show's producers and the anniversary event organisers to prepare for just such an emergency?" the Philippine Daily Inquirer said in an editorial.

"Was there a failure (a failing shared by many Filipinos, as disaster prevention experts tell us again and again) to imagine that bad things could actually happen?"

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.

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

Before being taken to morgues, the bodies had been lined up on the street, their faces covered with towels and newspapers as grieving relatives and friends crouched beside them. Shoes, handbags and half-eaten snacks were scattered on the pavement.

Some tickets had been given out earlier in the week for the anniversary show of "Wowowee", which selects contestants at random from the audience.

But thousands of fans, many of them poor and flocking from the provinces, had camped out for days for a chance at the show's usual jackpot of 1 million pesos ($19,230) and special prizes of a car and a house with land.

The head of security at ABS-CBN, Rene Luspo, said his team anticipated the crowd would be unruly and had taken "adequate" precautions but that the crush was "more than we expected".

"We thought we had done all that was humanly possible," he said.

Arroyo's political opponents used the tragedy to take a swipe at her economic record, saying Filipinos would not have risked their lives for prizes on a game show if they had better opportunities.

But even Vice President Noli de Castro, a former newscaster at ABS-CBN, acknowledged that the disaster was a "good lesson" for the network's management and the government.

"Wowowee", on six days a week at midday, is one of the most-watched shows in the Philippines and by communities of Filipinos living abroad.