After a month of stakeouts, the much-awaited move finally had a date: December 9.
It meant the news media could relax a little and even reassign momentarily some of the OB vans or people that have long-guarded the St. Luke’s Medical Center in Taguig City.
One station appropriated its St. Luke’s van for the “Occupy Mendiola” protests that diverted attention to the Palace doorstep days before the scheduled transfer. The van returned to find its spot intact and still reserved.
Reporters from the so-called “St. Luke’s press corps” could soon say goodbye to their joked-about Christmas party, and also to the air-conditioned waiting area complete with hot water and the occasional gratis snack courtesy of the hospital.
But while everyone finally knew the day, no one knew the hour former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would be brought to the Veterans Memorial Medical Center (VMMC) in Quezon City, where she was ordered by court to spend her hospital arrest.
And despite the frequent ambush interviews at the media area–all carried live on ANC–no spokesperson would drop a clue.
“Probably between 12 midnight and 11:59 in the evening,” said Atty. Ferdinand Topacio, lawyer to Arroyo’s husband Mike, and now infamous for humorously answering media queries and jesting with reporters.
So the media cast a bigger net and presumed the former President would leave before dawn, when traffic would be freer.
At ABS-CBN News, plans were set to open the morning show earlier should the transfer occur before 5 a.m. The desk ran over likely scenarios during meetings that lasted till 7 p.m. the night before.
Our news-gathering and technical crews were advised to report for work at midnight in the earliest.
Live vans and their cameras would meet the convoy as it passed either EDSA or C-5. But only if GMA were transferred by land.
There was still the possibility the Arroyo camp or the government might opt for a helicopter.
“I hope they just fly her here so we can finally have it easy,” quipped my colleague James, who with me was stationed at a van outside the Veterans entrance.
But as reporter Francis Faulve, who was to follow what left St. Luke’s, reminded: “Only a convoy would get us some good video.”
And that was the ideal output–shots following a vehicle through the metro. If we got lucky, we might snap a distant, shaky, or split-second view of the former Prez leaving or entering the hospital.
The timing and mode of transport were among the questions the news anchors of Umagang Kay Ganda repeatedly asked Arroyo spokespersons Topacio and Elena Bautista-Horn.
They were still at St. Luke’s the entire morning and they still gave no hint of the departure.
As UKG ended at 8 a.m., the only action our cameras could show was the thickening throng of people outside Veterans. They carried posters thanking and supporting Arroyo.
One of those organizing the picket looked familiar. She was at St. Luke’s a week before with a group who wanted to pay a call to the ailing congresswoman.
The visitors emotionally told reporters there no one paid them to come. They said they came from different localities and were affiliated with no organization.
They just went to thank Arroyo, who they said helped them during her term.
What baffled the media then was the group’s claim that no one assembled them there, when they all saw someone who wasn’t facing the cameras but was pointing people to places and negotiating with St. Luke’s security.
That organizer was again at Veterans, but unlike then, the police rarely bothered the group and few asked them why they were there.
What did not figure in anyone’s plans was the rain, which dragged and worsened as the anti-Arroyo protesters also came out.
“Even the weather’s angry at Gloria!” shouted Mike, one of our engineers, after he got wet fixing our wireless camera which followed the rallyists.
The team citizens’ band radio gave our main cue if the bird had finally flown the nest.
By 10 a.m. it crackled with our colleague from St.Luke’s: “Something’s leaving the hospital, but we’re not sure if this is it.”
We followed it anyway until it reached our spot at the Veterans North Avenue entrance. It was only a police convoy followed by a stream of media cars, with no VIP passenger.
Just a dry run–for the authorities and for us.
But soon after, Mrs. Horn of the Arroyo camp told the St. Luke’s media that they had been ready to ride since morning. The authorities insisted they fly by chopper even with the bad weather.
Horn said they were fine riding a taxi, just not the hazardous aerial trip.
We had a live camera trained at the St. Luke’s helipad, where the police helicopter lay in wait and in the end, unused.
Popoy, our cameraman roving the exits of the hospital noticed vehicles moving near the medical arts building around 3:30 p.m.
A white mini-bus was parked outside and flanked by police escorts. Staying in place and also on air, Popoy sent live the commotion that accompanied Arroyo to the coaster and out of St. Luke’s.
Our boss Donald Martinez radioed updates on the CB as the convoy this time traversed EDSA, based on our monitoring of the MMDA traffic cameras.
Four of our ENG vans were stationed outside VMMC. As with the exit, we had to second-guess where Arroyo would enter.
Two vans waited at the main entrance. Another guarded the Mindanao Avenue gate, where back in 2001, another beleaguered president crossed into hospital arrest.
Meanwhile, someone found a spot behind the Veterans compound with a view, albeit far, of Arroyo’s presidential suite.
Through a telephoto lens, a high platform, and an antenna cam courtesy of the fourth ENG van, we would show live the final stage of the transfer.
The EDSA convoy bypassed the rallyists, the riot police, and us waiting at North Avenue and went straight for the other entrance.
Yet even the extreme closeup from the van at the Veterans back-end could not give a recognizable shot of Arroyo as she alighted from the coaster.
That crucial video came from a contact who had access inside the military hospital.
The shooter stood by a window overlooking the suite’s drop-off point. In the video, one could hear hushed voices reacting as Arroyo, her husband Mike and her son Dato got out.
The “decoy” followed by “the real McCoy” was how Pasay court sheriff Rodelio Buenviaje described the transport drama that day.
The sheriff, who had to fetch Arroyo at St. Luke’s, was the first to approach the waiting press after they arrived.
“No wonder the Arroyos waited for Buenviaje,” said our other engineer Doni as the sheriff was being interviewed. “To ensure they’d have a good voyage.”
By then, the pro and anti-GMA crowds already thinned out by the rains had left.
The media tech teams there soon worked on the assembly line of live reports for the primetime newscasts. One reporter after another faced the cameras of the network next to us, from those who followed the convoy to those that guarded the protests.
As reporter Ron Gagalac went live on TV Patrol, our group watched out for another person.
Rep. Dato Arroyo arrived in a white van with Elena Horn. The two were in good moods as we prepared the Bicol lawmaker for his first live interview that night.
“It’s his turn to talk,” said Horn, who had been talking to the media since morning.
The younger Arroyo reran through the tug-of-war over his mother’s transport. But he muttered thanks that their camp and the authorities had reached a compromise in the end.
“We have next booking!” Horn said with a laugh once we were off the air. “I’m your manager now.”
The other stations also wanted interviews of their own and Horn continued fielding those requests on her tablet phone.
Dato Arroyo replied in Tagalog: “Does this come with a talent fee?”
We laughed along.
A reporter asked Horn: “You’re still okay Ma’am after today?” She nodded yes.
Some of us asked to have pictures taken with Horn after the interviews.
“Why after? Let’s do it now!” she said, smiling. “You might lose your chance later.”
The banter was a light end to an almost 20-hour interval that at times, bemused and amused us who waited.
While the transfer is over, it isn’t the end of a legal and political battle that has involved all branches of government and the expectations of the country.
An ENG van still guards the Veterans gate, awaiting a former President’s Christmas and New Year.