President Benigno Aquino on Sunday took the lead in the search for Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, a day after a light plane carrying the local government chief and three others crashed in waters off Masbate.
Mr. Aquino flew to Masbate early Sunday morning to oversee the search for the wreckage of the four-seat Piper Seneca that crashed into the sea while attempting an emergency landing about 5 p.m. on Saturday.
More than 300 rescuers were scouring the area about 500 meters from the shore of Masbate City for Robredo, who was missing along with the plane’s two pilots.
Robredo’s bodyguard, Chief Insp. Jun Abrasado, made a dramatic escape from the doomed plane and was rescued by fishermen. Abrasado was helping in the search, officials said.
Transportation Secretary Manuel Roxas, who accompanied Mr. Aquino and was designated as official spokesperson for the search, said special sonar equipment had been flown to Masbate to help in the search operation after some debris, including one wing of the missing plane, was recovered.
“We just want to do everything we can to save him [Robredo],” Roxas said in a message on Twitter.
“We remain hopeful that Secretary Robredo was just carried by the current … and that he will be found,” Roxas said, adding that Mr. Aquino was “very emotionally attached” to Robredo and was doing everything he could to help find him.
Four people were on the private plane that was heading for Naga City in Camarines Sur province from Cebu City when it malfunctioned and crashed in waters between Masbate and Ticao Islands.
Missing, aside from Robredo, were Capt. Jessup Bahinting, the pilot and CEO of Aviatour Air that owned the aircraft, and Kshitiz Chand, the Nepalese copilot.
At about 3 p.m. Sunday, Masbate Bantay Dagat reported to City Mayor Socrates Tuason that a large object had been detected on the seafloor.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) also reported that a Navy vessel’s sonar had detected “something metallic” on the sea floor.
“The sonar showed it was something metallic. But it’s not definite yet if that was really part of the airplane,” NDRRMC Executive Director Benito Ramos said by phone.
Hoping for best
“We are hoping for the best that there are still survivors,” Ramos said.
When the Philippine Daily Inquirer sought confirmation from Roxas by phone, he replied: “Nothing yet. Some underwater, seabed disturbances of indeterminate origin indicated by sonar.”
At 4:30 p.m., however, reports came that the flight manifest of the plane with the names of Robredo, Abrasado and the pilots were found in waters 750 meters off the shore.
Roxas confirmed the recovery of the document. He said the diver who recovered it reported finding it at a depth of 45 meters “alongside tracks” on the sea floor.
Earlier, Roxas said Coast Guard, Navy and police divers were searching for the wreckage in depths of 40 meters to 80 meters in an area about 200 meters from the tip of the runway of Masbate Airport.
Coast Guard divers reported seeing what looked like skid marks on the sea floor.
Roxas said the marks could be a sign that strong undercurrents were dragging the wreckage of the plane.
With that possibility, Roxas ordered the Coast Guard to delineate an area where the wreckage could be.
Malacañang could not say whether the President was staying in the area the whole day overseeing the air and surface operations to find Robredo and the others missing.
Tweets by InquirerSLB and ABS-CBN television said, however, the President was staying overnight in Masbate to continue supervising the search operation.
Accompanying Mr. Aquino were Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Philippine National Police Chief Nicanor Bartolome, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and Rep. Jun Abaya, president of the ruling Liberal Party.
Contrary to reports late on Saturday, the search went on overnight, according to presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.
More equipment were deployed Sunday morning to intensify the search for the wreckage, he said.
A flyby on Saturday night by a US aircraft failed to pinpoint the location of the wreckage, Roxas said.
Lt. Cmdr. Armand Balilo, Coast Guard spokesperson, said “big fishing boats with powerful lights helped in the search, trying to locate the plane’s wreckage,” but they had “no success so far.”
Balilio confirmed that the Coast Guard had sought help from the US Coast Guard.
“We gave the grid coordinates of the crash site to our American counterpart,” Balilo said. “We hope they can dispatch today one of their Lockheed P3 Orion aircraft to help in the search for the missing plane.”
Mayor Tuason said witnesses saw the plane trying to land at Masbate Airport at about 4:20 p.m. Saturday. But the plane suddenly plunged into the sea about 200 meters from the shore, he said.
Robredo attended groundbreaking rites for the new PNP Regional Training Center in Cebu City on Saturday. He was supposed to return to Manila on a Cebu Pacific flight that was to depart at 5:30 p.m.
But “for reasons known only to Secretary Robredo, he decided to take a private plane instead of taking the commercial flight,” Roxas said in a statement posted on the government’s official website.
“The secretary opted to fly using one of the planes of Aviatour Air, an aviation company based in [Mactan-Cebu International Airport],” he said. Aviatour Air provides professional pilot training, charter services, aircraft sales and maintenance services.
According to records at the Police Center for Aviation Security 7 (PCAS-7) and the public affairs division of Mactan-Cebu airport, the Piper Seneca took off at 3:06 p.m. It was headed for Naga City.
But at around 3:30 p.m., Abrasado sent a text message to Col. Ritchie Posadas, PCAS-7 chief, to say the plane was returning to Cebu because it was experiencing problems with one of its propellers.
Abrasado requested that Robredo’s flight to Manila be rebooked.
At around 4:20 p.m., the aide called again with the information that the plane was attempting an emergency landing at Masbate Airport.
When asked if he and his companions were all right, Abrasado replied in Filipino, “We’re fine.”
That was the last thing PCAS-7 heard from Abrasado.
The last communication received by the control tower at Mactan-Cebu airport reported the plane to be at 45 meters, descending, on the final approach to Masbate Airport’s runway, using instrument flight rules. The communication said the plane might undershoot the runway.
Then nothing more.
Abrasado survived the crash with minor injuries.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said Robredo’s security should not have allowed him to travel on a light plane going to a destination where he would arrive after dark. He said that was “inadvisable.”
Prayers poured in from public officials Sunday for Robredo’s safety.
Former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was among those praying for Robredo to be found safe, according to her spokesperson, Elena Bautista-Horn.
Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara said people should hang on to the hope that Robredo would be found alive.