The Other Guy Who Shot Ninoy
It’s probably one of the most iconic photos in Philippine history: Ninoy Aquino all in white, lying lifeless on the tarmac, his alleged assassin’s body just a few inches away as soldiers scramble to get Aquino into a military van. Aquino’s assassination was a pivotal event that turned the tide of public opinion against Marcos. Recto Mercene, the photojournalist who captured this critical moment, remembers it as if it were yesterday.
He, along with six other reporters who had been allowed to cover Ninoy’s arrival, were instructed to wait inside the passenger boarding bridge when they heard gunshots. “Yung unang putok, nagtaka kami. Because from the tarmac all the way to where we were, it’s quite far. So by the time the sound reaches us, it’s very faint. Pak! Parang ganoon lang. So nagkatinginan kami. And then a few seconds later, pop pop pop! That’s the time we knew na baril na iyon.”
Mercene jumped towards the window and started clicking away. “They were shooting at [Rolando] Galman, who was already dead; [they were] pretending to shoot the killer of Aquino. So noong winawasiwas ng isang soldier 'yung kanyang baril, humarap siya sakin. So when he pointed his gun at me, I ducked behind the wall but never let go of the shutter. Hindi na ako nag-iisip noon. Parang reflexes lang.”
“Noong matapos na yung shooting incident, takot ang mga tao doon because you can imagine, I think they were all firing towards Galman or also through the air so that umaalingawngaw doon.”
Once the gunfire had ceased, the passengers began to enter the terminal, including Rebecca Quijano, who was known from then on as the Crying Lady. “She was babbling, hysterical. And then pumila siya doon sa immigration. Lumapit kami, dala namin ang tape recorder. ‘Ano ano yung nakita mo?’ Before she could talk, lumapit sa kanya si Colonel Vicente Tigas, military coordinator ng media. Hinawakan siya. ‘Hey, come here, ikuwento mo sa akin.’ Dinala siya sa kuwarto ng immigration.”
Seeing that the rest of the passengers were completely silent, Mercene decided it was time to leave, fearing he and his fellow photographers get arrested by the military. “At the time, medyo paranoid ako. It was Martial Law and alam mo naman yung iba, maski walang dahilan, puwede kang arestuhin.”
However, they found that the doors to the airport had been locked. Luckily, as an airport reporter and former air traffic controller, Mercene was familiar with all of the exits. He took an elevator to the basement and escaped from there. As he left, he saw Salvador Laurel—who had been there to welcome Ninoy—rallying the crowd.
As it turned out, the doors had been locked not to trap those inside, but to keep Aquino’s supporters out. Still, Mercene didn’t even dare retrieve his car, which was parked on the other side of the building, and instead commuted to his office at the Times Journal.
He arrived at around 5PM and headed straight for the photo laboratory where he asked the lab man to make several copies, knowing that sooner or later, the film would be taken from him. After exactly one hour, Jolly Riofrir—a videographer who worked for Information Minister Greg Cendaña—arrived and said, “All right, pinakukuha ni Boss yung film.” “Ah! Alam ko naman. Ready na ako, o. I am going to give it to you on a silver platter,” Mercene joked. And so Riofrir left with the film, and Mercene handed the developed photos to his editor.
The following morning, the pictures of Ninoy’s assassination dominated the front page of the Times Journal. Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, brother of Imelda Marcos and owner of the broadsheet, was so enraged that he threw his copy on the ground and shouted, “Newspaper ko pa ba ’to?!” It was the first time his editors had dared to bypass him.
To appease Romualdez, the editors refrained from putting Aquino’s burial on the front page. “Very funny 'yung front page namin,” Mercene chuckles. “On the day that Ninoy was buried, he was on the front page of all newspapers. During the time that his body was being paraded around town, merong isang bata na tinamaan ng kidlat sa Luneta, na nag-uusiyoso. Iyon ang ginawa naming headline! Kahiya-hiya kami noon! But the editors had to swallow their pride. Kaya pinagtawanan kami noon ng buong bayan!”
In any case, Mercene is proud to be a part of history, a fact that was reinforced during the inquiries following the assassination: Marcos created two commissions to look into the assassination, one headed by Chief Justice Enrique Fernando, and another by former Court of Appeals Justice Corazon Agrava. “So suddenly all my photographs turned up at the investigation. Siyempre magandang ego-booster iyon. Minemention ka ng radio during the investigation. Tinatanong ako ni Agrava, ‘Nakita mo ba ang bumaril?’ Wala naman sa aming nakakakita yung bumaril. At the back of my mind, [I thought,] I am part of this. Nothing can take it away from me.”
When asked about what it was like to be a journalist during martial law, Mercene waxes nostalgic. “It was exciting,” he says. “Because remember in my time, during martial law, there were only three major newspapers: Bulletin Today, Daily Express, and The Times Journal. Kaya very intense ang competition namin. And then yung editor namin, may premyo pag maraming naka-scoop sa isang buwan. Madali lang magbilang eh—didikit lang sa pader yung magkakatatlong newspaper. Che-check lang ang bawat headline, alam mo na kung sinong merong scoop.”
Being an airport journalist came with certain perks as well. Mercene claims to have heard that Imelda Marcos instructed Jun Cruz, then-president of Philippine Airlines, to give the reporters on the airport beat flying privileges. “Humingi ka ng ticket, you can fly anywhere. Every time na may inaugural flights, kasama kami. Lahat kami nasa first class. Nandoon ako sa 747, nandoon ako sa unang-unang seat ng inaugural flight sa San Francisco. Paglingon ko, yung isang milyonaryo na intsik, nandoon lang sa business class!” Mercene laughs.
He suspects the reporters were given special treatment because every time the former First Lady departed or arrived in the country, she was on the front page of the newspapers. “Siyempre palagi kami ang kukuha. Ang daming pakulo ni Imelda noong araw eh. Bago siya umalis doon sa airport, may magsasayaw pa sa tarmac! Nakahold ang flight isang oras, dalawang oras.”
Mercene knows airports because, before he was a journalist, he was an air traffic controller and private pilot. But he grew bored spending hours alone in a cockpit, hearing nothing but the hum of the engine. Then Jose Pavia, head of the Philippine News Agency, asked him if he wanted to be a correspondent. As an air traffic controller, he had the inside scoop. "Reporters from other newspapers began to say, ‘Sino ba itong si Recto Merceneng ito? Bakit palaging may istorya ito na tayo wala?'”
And so when they found out that he was working for the airport, they reported him to General Jesus Singson, director of the Bureau of Air Transportation. “Sabi niya, ‘Hoy bata! Balita ko nagmo-moonlight ka! Illegal yung ginagawa mo! Mamili ka. Either you stay or go.’ Napakabagsik noon. Maski sino kayang murahin mo kasi martial law, eh,” Mercene explains.
By that time, he had been enjoying his part-time job as a reporter, so he had no problem resigning even if he had been a traffic controller for 18 years. Naturally, when he applied to the Times Journal, he got the airport beat. “Sabi ni Mr. Jose Luna Castro, my boss, magdala ka ng camera. Binigay sakin yung pinakabulok, 'yung pinakaluma na ang lens, fifty millimeter lang.”
His first photo was of a plane that had crashed on the tarmac. “Nakita ko may umuusok sa runway. So I ran from the terminal to the runway. Malayo iyon, may kalahating kilometro iyon. Eh bata pa naman ako noon, baliwala iyon. Mali ang landing,” Mercene explains. “It slammed the runway, natanggal yung engine, and then it stopped in the middle of the runway and starting burning. Napaka-close ko, fifty-millimeter lang yung aking camera, eh. Kung anong nasisilip mo sa lens, iyon ang actual na nakikita mo in real life. Walang distortion iyon. Hindi ka naman pwedeng lumayo. Kung lumayo ka naman, magiging parang langgam yung kinukunan mo." Mercene ran back and forth, snapping photos of people jumping out of the burning aircraft, then retreating a safe distance in case the plane exploded. "Later on may kuha pa ako sa runway na naglalakad na groggy, hindi ko alam na yung nakuha ko pala was the pilot.”
Jose Pavia sent the photo to the Confederation of ASEAN Journalists, and it won ASEAN Photo of the Year at the first ASEAN News Photo Contest in 1980. It was then published in National Geographic and LIFE magazine.
Today, Mercene enjoys a quiet life writing for the Business Mirror’s Envoys and Expats section, and tending to his impressive bonsai collection. His passion for the traditional Japanese art began in his college days, when he wandered into Alemars bookstore and looked through a bonsai magazine. His oldest bonsai is 34 years old.
“It’s like any other form of art. But a painting, once it is finished, it is finished! A sculpture, once it is finished, it is finished! These things never finish! They continue on growing,” he says. “I found beauty in it. As Keats says, a thing of beauty is a joy forever.”