MANILA - The driver of a Philippine tourist bus hijacked by a sacked policeman told a public inquiry Tuesday how he witnessed the gunman shoot more than a dozen Hong Kong visitors one by one as talks broke down.
Bus driver Alberto Lubang said his left hand was handcuffed to the steering wheel and he saw the horrific scenes unfold at the back of the bus through the rear-view mirror as the day-long standoff ended in a bloodbath.
"I heard the first shot and then I saw a hostage cuffed to the stairwell fall down," Lubang, a shaven-headed 38 year-old, said.
"Seconds later he (the gunman) had reached the back and (was) shooting again at the passengers sat there," he said.
"He was on the aisle, by the middle. I saw him by the rear-view mirror. He was shooting left and right. Afterwards he went into a crouch," he added.
Lubang said he managed to unpick the handcuffs using a nail file and jumped out of the window beside the steering wheel shortly before police launched an assault.
Armed with an assault rifle and a pistol, sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza took the busload of tourists hostage on August 23 in a desperate bid to clear himself of extortion charges and get his old job back.
Eight of the tourists were killed and seven others were injured in the central Manila standoff.
Police said post mortem examinations showed the bullets recovered from the bodies of the dead tourists all came from Mendoza's guns.
The standoff, which played out live on global television, came to a bloody end in the early evening when police stormed the bus in a botched attempt to rescue the hostages. A police sniper eventually shot dead the gunman.
Lubang said he did not recall any crying or shouting by the victims, but conceded it was possible his hearing had been deadened by the gunshot blasts inside the vehicle.
The driver said the 55 year-old gunman was not hostile in the first six hours of the crisis, had cracked jokes and even ordered them to use their mobile phones to tell their relatives that they had been taken captive.
His demeanour changed when his request to be reinstated to the Manila police force was rejected, the witness said.
He became enraged when he saw police arresting his younger brother, a policeman who had earlier helped in the negotiations, was later detained on suspicion of conspiring with his older brother, Lubang said.
The driver said he escaped soon after Mendoza had ordered him to drive the bus forward. Snipers deflated the tyres and the driver jumped out as police prepared to storm the vehicle.
Lubang said he remembered telling police debriefers: "He (Mendoza) has killed all of them."
President Benigno Aquino has taken responsibility for the tragedy, which has damaged ties with Hong Kong and hurt the country's tourism industry.
The inquiry board, which has uncovered a series of embarrassing mistakes by the police and local officials handling the hostage crisis, is expected to wind up the hearings Wednesday before writing a report to be submitted to Aquino.