"From relaxed joker to pitiless killer," South China Morning Post, 29 August 2010
Won "Best Writing – English" at the 2010 Hong Kong News Awards.
Published six days after the 23 Aug 2010 hostage crisis in Manila, this dispatch from Manila was the first definitive account of the events inside the bus that ended in the killing of seven Hong Kong tourists and their tour guide.
Under the old stones of Fort Santiago, six families awaited their tour bus.
It wasn't yet 10am but it was already 30 degrees Celsius and climbing, the bright sun casting an energy-sapping glare. The 20 tourists were given 45 minutes to explore the old Spanish fort, but most returned early.
It was the final day of a whirlwind tour for which the group had arrived four days earlier from Hong Kong, couples and families enjoying a late-August hurrah before school and work kicked off anew. Despite spanning seven decades in age, they had grown close sightseeing together.
"We became friends," said Li Fung-kwan, 66, who was travelling with her 72-year-old husband, Li Yick-biu.
The bus arrived and everyone clambered into the air-conditioned cocoon. Then a policeman in police-issue camouflage and green jacket boarded.
"I told the policeman, police are not allowed inside the bus, only the tourists," recalled Danilo Nebril, a tour company photographer.
"I'll just join you," the policeman said, according to Nebril.
As the bus moved off, the policeman announced they were his hostages and displayed an M16 assault rifle and a .45 calibre pistol. He ordered the driver to head for Quirino Grandstand, less than two kilometres away, and the men to the back of the bus.
Back in Hong Kong, Joyce Chan Siu-bing of Hong Thai Travel picked up the phone to hear tour guide Masa Tse Ting-chunn on the line. "He reported his tour code and his location, saying everyone had been kidnapped by a gunman," Chan said. "He sounded calm, but spoke in a very low voice. I guess he was afraid that the gunman would know he was calling us. The background was quiet too. I reminded him to stay calm."
Rolando Mendoza introduced himself, explaining that he had been fired from the police force and had lost his benefits. He swore that it was his staff, not him, who were guilty of wrongdoing. He wanted to be heard and to get his job back. Mendoza was 55, one year from retirement.
"What will I give as inheritance to my children if I don't get my demands met?" he said. He promised not to hurt anyone. "Be co-operative. If you co-operate, no harm," Nebril remembered him saying.
After the bus arrived at the Quirino Grandstand, Mendoza handcuffed driver Alberto Lubang, 38, to the steering wheel and taped a piece of paper on the door listing his grievances and demands. He released elderly Li Fung-kwan and local tour guide Diana Chan. By this time, Manila police had been informed of the bus hijacking. Chief Inspector Romeo Salvador arrived on the scene and walked over to the bus.
Salvador and Mendoza had worked together, Mendoza told the driver. "What do you want?" Salvador asked.
"It's about my case with the ombudsman. I just want it to be heard. Don't worry, nothing will happen here, if my demands are met," Lubang recalled Mendoza saying. Mendoza handed a thick folder to Superintendent Orlando Yebra, the lead negotiator.
"Okay Rolly," Yebra said. "I will take it, but let's have an exchange of hostages."
At noon, Mendoza allowed nurse Tsang Yee-lai, 40, off the bus, with her son Fu Chak-yin, 10, and Chung-yin, four. Tsang claimed that another boy, Jason Wong Ching-yat, 12, was also family. He was released too.
The next few hours seemed to go pretty smoothly. Mendoza released more hostages - a young Filipino photographer named Rigor Cruz and the elderly Li Yick-biu, who is diabetic. In the late afternoon, Mendoza released Nebril, the other Filipino photographer.
"It was okay in the beginning," said Tracey Wong Cheuk-yiu, 15, Jason's sister. "Only I felt bored. The gunman allowed us to have food and drink. We were not scared at that time."
Mendoza was in a jolly mood and was joking, Lubang, the driver, recalled. He talked a lot on his cellphone. But police gunmen were gathering. Around noon, the Manila police SWAT team rehearsed assaults on a bus like the hijacked vehicle, Philippine National Police (PNP) Manila director Leocadio Santiago said.
During the afternoon, Mendoza asked for food for the hostages, but didn't eat himself. His brother, wife and daughter arrived on the scene. His wife, Aurora Mendoza, tried to speak with him, but he refused. Talking with family might make him weak, Mendoza told the driver.
At one point, Mendoza posted a handwritten sign in the window: "Big mistake to correct a big wrong decision." About 2pm, Mendoza's brother, Gregorio, tried to crash the police barrier and approach the bus.
Police stopped him and discovered that he was armed - not allowed for off-duty police. The police took his gun and admonished him. Mendoza took a call from a friend, which was taped by a local television station. "The PNP has gotten personal on me," Mendoza said. "I was dismissed from the police force.
"Today I'm now disqualified from any government agency. I won't be able to receive any benefits. What is the meaning of my life now? My life is wasted," he said, his voice surprisingly light.
Around dusk, negotiators Yebra, Salvador and Mendoza's brother walked to the bus to deliver a letter from Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, promising to take a fresh look at Mendoza's case.
The letter infuriated Mendoza. "This is not what I need," he said. "This is garbage. Return this. I don't see the decision that I want from them.”
Mendoza refused to accept Yebra's attempts to explain. Then came these words from his brother Gregorio: "They took my gun. Don't give up until they give it back," upsetting Mendoza so much that he fired a shot in the air, hitting the driver's side window of the bus. They withdrew and Yebra recommended to his superiors that Gregorio be arrested and charged with obstruction and aiding his brother.
Director Santiago signed a new letter to "suspend the implementation of Mendoza's dismissal from the police" and ordered it to be taken by motorcycle to the hijacked bus, about a kilometre away. Thunder roared in the distance and rain poured down as darkness fell.
"The atmosphere became tense," Tracey Wong recalled. "The gunman talked a lot on the phone ...everyone became scared."
Mendoza agreed to an interview with Radio Mindanao Network. "It is now quarter to seven here in our station. What's your last decision?" asked radio reporter Michael Rojas.
"I don't have a decision any more," Mendoza said. "I see a lot of SWAT arriving, I can see them surrounding me. And I know that they will kill me. They should leave their positions because anytime I will do it [kill] here."
Mendoza looked at the television in the bus and saw his brother Gregorio pinned down to the ground by policeman somewhere close by, his family wailing in the background. "Oh, why is my brother being treated like that? I'm the one who is to blame. He didn't do anything. Show me, release my brother. Show me, if not, I will kill the hostages inside. Tell them. Tell them. Show me, at the left side of the bus. Allow my brother to walk there. Release him or I will kill them all," he yelled into the phone.
"Yes, we are calling [the police]. Take it easy," Rojas replied.
"They're saying my brother is an accessory. He's not an accessory. I'm the only one who's doing this ... tell them, there, I am watching on television. My police brother is being treated like a pig," he said.
"He's not at fault. He doesn't know anything about this. He only knew it from television. Why are you doing this to my brother? ... tell them. There, they will not release my brother. Oh! [expletive]. I will shoot this one. What? If they don't release my brother, I will shoot this one."
"Captain Mendoza, don't shoot," Rojas said, calling to a fellow reporter: "Erwin, please hurry up with the commander."
But Erwin Tulfo could not get through to the police commander.
"Now, there. You handcuffed him," Mendoza said as he watched the TV. "If you don't release him, I will shoot this one."
"Captain Mendoza, we are helping you," Rojas pleaded.
"No! There's no one stopping me. If they leave with my brother arrested, I will shoot the one in front. I will shoot him first."
"Five minutes, five minutes," Mendoza screamed.
Three minutes passed.
"I will kill," Mendoza yelled into the phone.
"Captain Mendoza, Captain Mendoza," Rojas screamed. Then gunshots and cries were heard. Mendoza turned off his cellphone. Mendoza aimed at the tour guide, Masa Tse Ting-chunn, who was handcuffed to the railing near the door. On television, the world watched Tse's hand slump.
Lubang saw Mendoza shoot another couple. "Please let me go. I have a family," he begged. Mendoza shouted to Lubang to move the bus. The bus lurched forward a few feet before snipers shot the tyres.
Lubang begged for his freedom again. Mendoza continued firing inside the bus. At least five passengers tried to grab his gun or deflect it, recalled Joe Chan Kwok-chu, a passenger who survived. When two or three people tried to run towards him, Mendoza stepped back and shot them, Chan told the Oriental Daily News.
Mendoza shot Jason Leung Song-xue, 18. His sister, Jessie Leung Song-yi, 14, ran towards him and was gunned down, Chan said. He stuffed water bottles into his bag in hopes of protecting himself. He held his bag up, but the bullets pierced it, shattering his hands.
"I hid underneath my seat," Wong said. "There were more gunshots from inside and outside of the coach... I was shivering all over."
The driver used a nail cutter to free himself from his handcuffs. He jumped out the window and ran towards the crowd.
"They're all dead," he yelled. The ground commander ordered the SWAT team to attack. They approached the bus with sledgehammers but a first attempt failed. The windows were tempered plastic, stronger than the safety glass on their rehearsal bus. The gunman fired and police retreated.
The elite Philippine National Police special action force ran up to secure the rear of the bus but retreated to avoid crossfire from the SWAT team.
Tear gas was thrown into the bus, forcing Mendoza to the front. A sniper shot him in the head and he fell through the broken door.
The time was 8.45pm. A second letter, the one that might have made the difference, never reached him.