February 4, 2006

Philippines begins inquiry of game show stampede

By John O'Callaghan

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine government summoned
television executives and security officials to an inquiry on
Sunday to determine why 74 people died in a stampede for a
popular game show giving away cash and prizes.

Saturday'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 organizers 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

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

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.

"We're very poor. I waited for days outside to try our
luck," Susan Doblin, who traveled from the central island of
Leyte, told Reuters at the stadium on Saturday. "This is a rare
chance for us to win a million pesos."