MANILA, Philippines – A gunman stormed a casino in the Philippine capital and torched gambling tables in the crowded space, creating a choking level of smoke that killed at least 36 people, authorities said. The gunman stuffed a backpack with casino chips before he fled but was found dead in an adjacent hotel early Friday of an apparent suicide.
The bodies were found in the smoky gambling room by firefighters and all died from suffocation and smoke inhalation, Metropolitan Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde said. None of the bodies had gunshot wounds.
The attack sent hundreds of people fleeing into the night outside the Resorts World Manila complex and produced a claim of terrorism that police stressed had no evidence to support it. The violence unfolded as government forces were engaged in a second week of fighting against Islamic State group-aligned militants in the southern city of Marawi.
"He would have shot all the people gambling there" if it had been terrorism, national police chief Ronald dela Rosa said.
Authorities suspect the motive was robbery. "It's either he lost in the casino and wanted to recoup his losses or he went totally nuts," Albayalde said.
Dela Rosa said security footage showed the gunman ignoring a guard who tried to question him at the entrance. He did not hurt the guard but went straight to the gambling area, dela Rosa said.
The gunman stole gambling chips, shot TV screens and set gambling tables ablaze by pouring gasoline on them, dela Rosa said. It was not clear how the gunman smuggled gasoline and an assault rifle into the crowded casino, but the assailant did not fire at people he encountered.
The man carried a 2 liter soda bottle and may have an extra container of gasoline as well, Albayalde said. The room was carpeted and the tables were combustible, he said, and all the bodies were found in the smoky gambling room. Investigators were going to check if the water sprinklers in the hotel worked.
More than 70 people suffered mostly minor injuries in the stampede to escape. The only gunshot wound was a guard at the complex, who accidentally shot himself when the suspect entered the room, authorities said. A South Korean died of a possible heart attack suffered during the evacuation, the country's Foreign Ministry said.
Ronald Romualdo, a maintenance worker at Resorts World, said he and his colleagues heard gunshots and saw people smashing the windows on the second floor and third floor to escape.
"We took out a ladder to save them. We were able to save many of them," he said. "But one woman I was trying to save fell from the second floor. ... I could not carry her." He said the woman was not moving afterward, but he didn't know what happened to her.
About 90 minutes after the attack began, Resorts World Manila said on its Facebook page that it was on lockdown following reports of gunfire and it was working to ensure the safety of guests and workers.
The national police chief said the gunman apparently barged into a room at the 5th floor of the Maxims hotel connected to the mall and casino, laid on the bed, blanketed himself, doused himself with gasoline then set himself on fire. The bag of gambling chips worth 113 million pesos ($226,000) was found in a toilet.
The suspect was English-speaking but had no identification cards. Dela Rosa described him as "white, with a mustache" and about 6 feet tall. He said the man's car at the parking lot was being examined.
As news of the attack had spread, President Donald Trump offered the thoughts and prayers of the American people to the Philippines.
"It is really very sad as to what's going on throughout the world with terror," he said from the White House Rose Garden. Trump said he was "closely monitoring the situation" and would continue to provide updates.
The SITE monitoring service, which tracks white supremacist and jihadist activity online, said an Islamic State-linked Filipino operative who provides daily updates on the ongoing clashes in Marawi claimed "lone wolf soldiers" of the Islamic State group were responsible for the attack.
An English message by the operative was distributed across several pro-IS Telegram chat groups, SITE said. According to SITE, the message says the attacker intended to burn the casino because the activities inside were haram, or forbidden by Islam.
The unrest in Marawi had sparked fears that militants might attack elsewhere to divert the focus of the thousands of troops trying to quell the siege. But dela Rosa said "We cannot attribute this to terrorism without concrete evidence."
Associated Press journalists Teresa Cerojano, Joeal Calupitan and Bullit Marquez contributed to this report.