MANILA, Philippines (AP) - More than 200 people have been injured by illegal firecrackers and celebratory gunfire in the Philippines despite a government scare campaign against reckless New Year revelries, officials said Saturday.
Stray bullets wounded eight people and 197 were injured by powerful firecrackers from Dec. 21 to 30, Health Assistant Secretary Enrique Tayag said, adding that more than half of the victims were children. At least 14 had to undergo amputations, mostly of fingers, because of their injuries.
Officials fear the number of injuries may rise as superstitious Filipinos bid goodbye to a year of natural disasters and economic uncertainty.
Many Filipinos, largely influenced by Chinese tradition, believe that noisy New Year's celebrations drive away evil and misfortune. But they have carried that superstition to extremes, exploding huge firecrackers and firing guns to welcome the new year despite threats of arrest. One particularly huge triangular firecracker is labeled "Goodbye Philippines."
Although the number of injuries has tapered off in recent years, largely due to hard economic times and the government's scare campaign, the figures remain alarming.
"Doctors are waiting with surgical saws, bone cutters and drills in case your fingers need to be amputated," Tayag told the ABS-CBN network to dissuade illegal fireworks. "I hope this won't happen."
Red Cross official Gwendolyn Pang said about 3,500 blood bags were prepared by her group for expected emergency surgeries, adding she was most concerned with celebratory gunfire in the south, which is notorious for its many unlicensed firearms.
Dozens of hospitals nationwide were on full alert, their emergency rooms staffed with trauma doctors for the expected influx of injured revelers.
The government has gone to extremes to discourage dangerous celebrations. The health department has shown gory pictures of mangled hands and eyes in posters in the past but the violent tradition has nevertheless continued.
National police Chief Nicanor Bartolome warned policemen of immediate dismissal and criminal prosecution if they fire their guns to welcome the new year. At least three policemen were reported to have violated the warning and were under investigation.
Bartolome led officers in sealing the muzzles of guns of policemen with masking tape and then signing them in a symbolic warning to would-be violators.
Instead of lighting up dangerous firecrackers, Tayag urged Filipinos to troop to public squares to watch colorful fireworks. He also unveiled a new tactic: a free CD containing the thundering sound of the most powerful firecrackers popular among revelers. More than 50,000 people have downloaded the firecracker audio file from the health department website, he said.