MANILA — Just before dawn Monday, Col. Mariano Santiago's heart sank as he watched anti-riot troops loyal to President Ferdinand E. Marcos using tear gas on thousands of civilians who had come out to form a human barricade around the stronghold of rebel forces trying to overthrow the government.
As soon as the gas had cleared the way, a column of loyalist tanks, heavy artillery and armored personnel carriers rolled down the street outside the rebels' base in Camp Crame and took up positions in Camp Aguinaldo across the street.
Any minute now, Santiago thought, Marcos could crush the rebellion with a single order to open fire.
It was then that he had an idea that could have changed the course of Philippine history.
"I was thinking that it would be very bad if we were to stick to our position of passive defense," said Santiago, 41, who was a senior member of Marcos' Presidential Security Command until he defected to the campaign of opposition candidate Corazon Aquino two weeks before the Feb. 7 election.
So Santiago picked up his personal M-16 rifle and a handful of weapons for his friends, used the Roman Catholic Church's radio station, Radio Veritas, to call for the help of civilian demonstrators and took it upon himself to launch an attack on Channel 4, the government's television station. It was the first time that the rebel forces had taken the offensive.
After two hours of talks and a 15-minute exchange of gunfire with loyalist troops inside the premises, Santiago and a largely civilian force that included nuns and priests had control of the station.
Marcos, broadcasting at the time, was cut off in mid-sentence.
The capture of the television station gave the rebel forces their first advantage since two key government figures, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Deputy Chief of Staff Fidel V. Ramos, defected Saturday. It deprived Marcos of his principal propaganda vehicle and his only major link to his regional military commanders--at the moment that he was broadcasting orders to his troops.
And it gave rebel leaders and the political opposition a national platform at a critical moment in their fight to take control of this nation of 55 million people.
Like most of the turning points in what ranks as a most unusual attempted coup, Santiago's seizure of the three-story-high Channel 4 complex was the spontaneous act of a single individual. It illustrated a phenomenon that Aquino and now the rebel leaders have dubbed "people power"--the combined force of pacifist demonstrators and armed soldiers, using the civilians as their shield and inspiration.
"Originally there was no order to take this over," Santiago said in an interview after his force and reinforcements sent by Enrile had secured the television station. "I just came over here with some citizens because I knew something had to be done to change our tactics.
"And I knew how important it was for us to have a propaganda machine. But we could not have done this without our people power, the priests and the nuns and the people in the street. When the soldiers and employees inside looked out the windows, they knew the Filipino people were against them."
In fact, Santiago said, most of the 20 loyalist troops guarding the complex surrendered, and it was the employees themselves who pulled the plug on their president moments before the rebel assault force entered the control room.
Within an hour, the station was back on the air, and the studio was filled with expressions of happiness.
Bong Llapira, a television announcer who had worked at the station before the Marcos government seized it when martial law was declared in 1972, cried exultantly on the air, "We are free again!" He dubbed the new Channel 4 "The Voice of the Free Philippines."
For many Manila residents accustomed to seeing government propaganda on Channel 4, the suddenness of the transformation was convincing proof that the rebels and the opposition were indeed gaining momentum over Marcos.
"It was like someone set my TV free," one Manila housewife said, asking not to be identified by name.
"There's no question this was a very, very important step--maybe the most crucial so far," Billy Esposo, one of Aquino's top advisers, said.
Recalling that Radio Veritas, which has served as the principal broadcast outlet of the opposition, was sabotaged and on the point of running out of emergency backup power, Esposo said, "If we were in a total blackout, Marcos could have just about had his way. . . . It could have been very demoralizing, and it could have kept him in there."
The attack on Channel 4 had an ironic aftermath. One of the first faces to appear on the Voice of the Philippines was that of Enrile, one of the top Marcos aides, whose defection gave the president's opposition a significant boost.
Enrile, who was martial law administrator from 1972 to 1981, was the same man who had seized the station on behalf of the Marcos government in 1972.