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by Edward R. Kiunisala
September 4, 1971–SATURDAY, August 21, at about 9:15 p.m., barely seconds after the Liberal Party candidates for Manila’s elective posts had been officially proclaimed on jam-packed Plaza Miranda, two fragmentation, combat grenades suddenly exploded in what proved to be the most villainous, outrageous and shameful crime in the annals of local political violence. It was a night of national tragedy and infamy as democracy—Philippine style—bared itself in all its terrifying ugliness.
For one dark, demented, damning moment of history, time stopped as tens of thousands of televiewers all over the country watched in utter horror the mass slaughter at Plaza Miranda. Miraculously, all top Opposition leaders who were there managed to cheat death. But not one of the eight LP senatorial candidates escaped injury. Sen. Jovito Salonga, as of this writing, is still fighting for his life, although the others were already pronounced “out of danger.”
Also on the critical list is Sen. Sergio Osmeña, who declined to seek reelection to pursue his electoral protest against Pres. Ferdinand E. Marcos.
Sen. Gerardo Roxas, LP president, and his wife, Judy, were badly injured.
So were Constitutional Delegate Salvador Mariño, chairman of the Manila LP chapter, and Ramon Bagatsing, LP mayoralty candidate for Manila.
LP senatorial candidates Edgar Ilarde and John Osmeña were badly wounded. Their damaged legs nearly had to be amputated. Ilarde may not be able to walk for from six months to one year while Johnny may be bedridden for about four months. Ilarde’s right leg was severely fractured while John’s leg’s artery was severed and his leg bones splintered.
Rep. Ramon Mitra, another LP senatorial aspirant, suffered multiple leg and body injuries. A splinter went through his left breast muscles, ripping off flesh. But he is now out of danger along with the rest of the LP Senate bets—Eva Estrada Kalaw, Melanio Singson, Salipada Pendatun and Genaro Magsaysay, who all suffered various degrees of injuries.
But others on Plaza Miranda that night were not so lucky. Slaughtered were nine persons, including Manila Times photographer Ben Roxas. Some were mangled beyond recognition while others were dead on arrival at the hospital. The latest count showed that 96 others were injured that night.
Ramon Vecina, Free Press photographer, was also seriously wounded in that bloody night of the LP proclamation meeting.
“I am holding President Marcos personally responsibly for the brutal and senseless carnage that took place on Plaza Miranda,” muttered the LP boss, Sen. Roxas in his hospital bed.
“The Plaza Miranda incident has illustrated beyond doubt that there is not a safe place in the country where people may express their views without having to face the perils of assassination.
“I have only one message to leaders, followers and the electorate: Nothing will deter the LP nor dampen its determination to win the mandate of the people this election. We shall continue to fight for the right of our citizenry. I am grateful to the Almighty for those of us who were fortunate to have been spared.”
The gory incident happened so quickly no one among the victims knew what hit him. It took Manila police officers some two hours to know what went off on Plaza Miranda that night. The instant suspicion was that a bomb had been planted under the stage or had been lobbed in its direction from somewhere. Only after the grenade levers and pins were found did the authorities know the cause of the outrage.
Tragedy was farthest from the minds of the LP leaders when they ascended the Plaza Miranda stage that Black Saturday night on August 21. Of course, they were somewhat apprehensive of their safety, but such misgivings were not uncommon in public exposures in an election campaign. Sen. Benigno Aquino, Jr., LP secretary-general, Congressman Mitra and aides of Senator Osmeña had received threats over the telephone early that day, but all of them dismissed the threatening phone calls as the work of a crank.
Just the same, the LPs did not take any chances. Bagatsing sent his aides to secure the Plaza Miranda stage. Cesar Climaco, Manila’s new “garbage czar,” ordered the cleaning of Plaza Miranda that afternoon. Meanwhile, LP security officers kept an eagle eye on the stage to prevent sabotage. By about seven o’clock that night, a large crowd had already gathered on Plaza Miranda.
Former Sen. Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo was originally requested to emcee the LP proclamation meeting, but he declined, so, Mariño took over. The local candidates were given three minutes each to deliver their speeches. An oppositionist crowd applauded each speaker thunderously. At about 9:10 p.m., all the local candidates had already spoken and the National Anthem was played.
The next part of the program was the proclamation of the LP’s local candidates in Manila. Roxas stood up and approached the battery of microphones. The photographers spread out to get a good view. FP photographer Vecina moved back from the stage, about five heads away to get a vantage shot. It was a great moment for the LP local candidates as Roxas, “by virtue of the powers” vested in him as head of the Liberal Party, proclaimed the official LP candidates for Manila’s elective positions.
As the local candidates, their hands raised high, beamed and smiled and acknowledged the lusty cheers of the audience, fireworks bathed the Plaza Miranda crowd with incandescence. There was a festive atmosphere as the pyro-technics burned and crackled. The local candidates happily returned to their seat and emcee Mariño started to speak again. But before he could finish the sentence, a fist-sized solid object hit the edge of the stage. Meanwhile all eyes were glued to the fireworks display. Somewhere, someone shouted, “Ibagsak ang mga tuta ni Marcos!” Almost simultaneously, the solid object which had hit the stage went off, ripping the wooden planks and blasting the people near it. FP photographer Vecina winced and fell and was buried by falling bodies.
At that moment, Mitra, who was talking to Roxas, felt shrapnel pierce his breast muscles. Recalling the threatening phone call, he ran. John Osmeña, seated to the right of Singson, embraced Singson and they both fell behind Salonga, who remained seated. The other LP senatorial aspirants dove for the floor. Roxas tried to run; his aide jumped on him to cover him.
Before Mitra could reach the stairs of the stage, another blast came, hitting Mitra from behind, throwing him off the stage to the ground near a six-by-six vehicle. All hell broke loose. Those on the stage scampered in all directions as did those on the ground. It was survival of the fittest! The weaker ones fell and were trampled underfoot.
In a matter of seconds, Plaza Miranda was empty; except for police officers and plainclothesmen—and the wounded and the dead. John Osmeña tried to sit up but later fell on the floor unconscious. Aides and bodyguards of top LPs along with police officers rushed to the stage and carried the wounded to places of safety. Rattan chairs were stacked up in heaps to make way for vehicles which would bring the victims to the hospitals.
Senator Osmeña and Singson were rushed to the FEU hospital.
Mitra and Salonga were brought to Medical Center Manila and Roxas and his wife to Makati Medical Center.
John Osmeña and Magsaysay were rushed to the Manila Doctor’s Hospital while Ilarde was brought to the Singian Clinic.
Senator Kalaw was taken to the De Ocampo Hospital and later that night transferred to the Chinese General Hospital.
Pendatun limped his way to an ABS-CBN truck which brought him to ABM Sison Hospital.
Other wounded victims were brought to PGH and De Ocampo Hospital.
About 10 minutes after the Plaza Miranda bloodbath, Climaco arrived and brought a semblance of order. Along with the police, he helped carry wounded onlookers and the dead to waiting vehicles to take them to hospitals. Our Vecina was unearthed from a pile of blood and dying persons. Recovering consciousness, Vecina, bleeding and weakened from loss of blood, clambered back to the stage and took some more shots. Exhausted, he asked to be brought to Medical Center Manila. While there, he took pictures of some of the Plaza Miranda victims. Then he again lost consciousness and was taken to the operating room.
Back at Plaza Miranda, MPD Chief Gerardo Tamayo arrived. With Climaco, Tamayo investigated the incident, at the same time ordering his men to look for clues. He also sought the help of bomb disposal experts from the army. About an hour after the blasts, Metrocom troops came and helped in restoring order and looking for clues. An hour and forty-five minutes later, President Marcos signed the order suspending the writ of habeas corpus and blaming the Communists for the bombings.
Police investigators found two grenade pins at a distance of two and a half meters from each other, with both pins about 17 meters from the stage. Two grenade levers were also found on the plaza. Outside of the levers and pins, no other clues were found. Sometime later, however, police officers found a witness who testified that he saw a man pull out a solid object from a bag and hurl it in the direction of the stage.
Since the time-lag between the blasts was only three seconds, the police theorized that two men, not just one, threw the grenades. It is impossible for one man in a sardine-packed crowd to throw two grenades in three seconds, said Tamayo. But the police were in no position to identify the criminals. First they thought a mad man did it, later they junked the idea.
If two men committed the heinous crime, the police theorized, then it was a planned criminal act. The timing of the grenade-throwing with the display of the fireworks indicated planning. The type of the grenades used, used for combat in Vietnam, and the way the grenades were thrown showed that the criminals were professionals, doing a professional job.
Meanwhile, media men, after a round of hospitals, sped to Malacañang where they were met by the First Lady, who reportedly showed them a report of a certain disgruntled major who said that something bad was going to happen that night. At that time, the President was closeted in his study room, preparing a statement on the Plaza Miranda tragedy. Little did anyone know that Marcos was readying the ground preparatory to the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.
When pandemonium broke loose at Plaza Miranda, American Ambassador Henry Byroade was in his bedroom about to retire. His staff rang him up to inform him of the incident. Meanwhile Sen. Benigno Aquino, who had attended a party at the Jai Alai, was on the way home to get his bullet-proof vest. He was scheduled to speak at the meeting at about two o’clock the following morning. On the way home, Aquino heard the tragic news on the radio. He sped home, grabbed a pistol, put on his bullet-proof vest and a combat jacket on top of it, then told his driver to take him to the hospitals where his wounded colleagues were confined. Aquino went up the Medical Center Manila, pistol in hand. Interviewed on the air, Aquino said that he hoped the criminal or criminals behind the Plaza Miranda carnage were mad men or demented persons because otherwise the Plaza Miranda crime meant the death of democracy.
For others throughout the country, it was a sleepless night. Lights were on in many homes in Greater Manila. People stayed glued to their radio or TV sets, listening to the latest developments. Salonga and Osmeña were on the critical list, Pendatun and Eva Estrada were already pronounced out of danger. Radio reports captured the screams and agonized cries of victims in emergency wards.
Of the LP senatorial candidates, Salonga got it worst of all. He had no time to run after the first blast. The second one caught him sitting down, with the grenade going off only a few meters away. Salonga’s left cheek was shattered and a shrapnel imbedded itself in his left eye. His right arm was broken, with three of his fingers cut off. Shrapnel went through his left leg. All told, Salonga suffered some 30 wounds of various sizes and depths all over his body.
Senator Osmeña, too, was critically wounded. After the first blast, Osmeña turned around to duck, but the second blast came too soon and he suffered wounds in the back and the left arm. Shrapnel went right through Serging’s lungs. He was bleeding profusely when his aides picked him up. Upon arrival at the hospital, Osmeña’s heart stopped. The doctors had to massage his heart to revive him.
Singson, who sat beside Salonga, was lucky. When John Osmeña embraced him, he fell; John got most of the shrapnel from the grenade blast.
After the first blast, Ilarde tried to sprint for safety but the succeeding blast caught him in the leg and he fell unconscious. Mrs. Kalaw dove for the floor but shrapnel hit her right ankle and another got imbedded in her back.
Of the Manila local candidates, Councilor Ambrosio Lorenzo got it worst. The first blast came while he was on the way to his seat. The second blast hit him while he was trying to find out what hit him and he fell on the stage floor. Shrapnel saturated his body; one hit his left eye. As of this writing, Lorenzo, like Salonga, is still fighting for his life. A police major picked him up sprawled on the floor, stunned and bleeding.
Manila LP mayoralty candidate Bagatsing was hit on the left cheekbone and in the right heel. He also suffered several shrapnel wounds in his left side and back. He was under sedation for three days. His doctors have taken him off the danger list.
Other Manila local candidates were luckier—they had gone back to their seats about three rows behind when the first blast came.
National shock followed the Plaza Miranda bombings.
The question uppermost in the minds of the people was, of course: Who committed the crime?
Some blamed student activists; others, lunatics. President Marcos was quick to put up the blame on “subversives” who received “moral and material support from a foreign source, guided and directed by a well-trained, determined and ruthless group.”
Later, Marcos charged Senator Aquino with coddling and financing the “subversives.” The Marcos blast against Aquino created suspicion that Aquino might be behind the Plaza Miranda tragedy but people refused to believe in the innuendoes against Aquino. If Aquino had known what was going to happen on Plaza Miranda that night, he would surely have tipped off Senator Kalaw, who is his first-degree cousin.
In an interview, Senator Kalaw denounced the President for shifting the blame for the Plaza Miranda outrage to Aquino. The President’s move, she said, worked to deflect attention from the real perpetrators of the crime. A social work expert, Kalaw could not understand why Marcos was more concerned over shifting the blame to Aquino than looking for the real criminals. The President’s actuations, said Kalaw, were simply not fitting for the President, who should act as the father of the nation and not like Marcos.
Former Congressman Singson argued against the possibility that the Huks or the New People’s Army was behind the Plaza Miranda massacre. The revolutionaries, he said, anchor their hope of reforms on the Opposition. If they wiped out the Opposition, they would be doing a disservice to their cause. It just doesn’t stand to reason!
But whoever are the perpetrators of the horrible crime at Plaza Miranda, they have done a professional job. Which means that an intelligent mind was behind it. Climaco theorizes that two trained teams undertook the Plaza Miranda bombings. The two grenade throwers, he said, were encircled by their accomplices to give them elbow room to hurl the grenades. In other words, he said, the Plaza Miranda crime was the result of a team effort.
As of this writing, the Manila police are still in the dark as to identities of the Plaza Miranda criminals. But whoever and wherever they are now, the death of nine innocent persons and the injury to 96 others will haunt their conscience for as long as they live—if they have any conscience at all. They not only killed nine of their countrymen and wounded close to a hundred others, but also inflicted an irreparable injury on Philippine democracy.
It will take a long time before Plaza Miranda, the symbol of free expression, will be as it used to be. No one will ascend the Plaza Miranda stage again without fearing for his life. How much of the militancy, the courage, the national pride and the spirit of the Filipino people have gone that Black Saturday at Plaza Miranda?