I think he wants to bring a friend home,” Budget Secretary Florencio Abad told the Philippine Daily Inquirer at the Masbate airport.
At high noon Tuesday, President Benigno Aquino took home the remains of Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, fulfilling a promise to his grief-stricken family.
“Ma’am Leni, kids here. Honors drumming slow cadence, trumpet with mournful wail. So so tearfully sad. You’re home now Jesse,” Transportation Secretary Manuel Roxas said in a Twitter message addressed to Robredo’s wife Maria Leonor upon landing with the President at Naga Airport.
Mr. Aquino flew from Manila to Masbate City upon hearing the news that Robredo’s body had been recovered three days after his plane crashed into the sea. He accompanied the flag-draped casket bearing Robredo’s body on the C-130 Hercules on the flight to Naga City.
On Tuesday night, the President signed Proclamation No. 460 declaring the period from Tuesday until the day of Robredo’s interment as national days of mourning, Malacañang said.
The proclamation said that, until interment day, the flag shall be lowered to half staff in Malacañang, in Naga City and at the Department of Interior and Local Government and offices under it. It also said the flag shall be flown at half staff in all government buildings and posts abroad for six days.
Retrieval operations for the two pilots who perished in the crash of the four-seater Piper Seneca along with Robredo—Capt. Jessup Bahinting, owner of the plane and CEO of Aviatour Air in Cebu, and Nepalese copilot Kshitiz Chand— were to continue Wednesday. Robredo’s police aide, Senior Insp. June Paolo Abrazado, survived the tragedy.
Roxas, head of the search and rescue operations in Masbate City, said the remains of Robredo and the two pilots were spotted by divers inside the fuselage of the ill-fated light plane, which was lying belly up some 800 meters from the Masbate shoreline at a depth of 50 meters.
In a hastily convened press briefing at 9:15 a.m., Roxas in a somber tone announced the “sad news.” He said that divers led by Matt Reed of Britain found the wreckage of the plane at 7:21 a.m.
“The body has indications that it belongs to Sec. Jesse,” said Roxas as he tried to fight off tears. “Sad as it is, we are now in search and recovery retrieval at 9:30 a.m.”
Roxas said the President was informed of the discovery of the plane’s fuselage at 7:50 a.m.
Mr. Aquino had stayed in Masbate to oversee the Robredo search for two days but had to leave late Monday for Naga City, where he condoled with the Robredo family, en route to Manila, where he was to attend ceremonies Tuesday marking the death anniversary of his assassinated father, Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr.
Upon hearing Roxas’ report, the President sought further confirmation.
At 7:45 a.m., Reed—who had been briefed by authorities of Robredo’s physical features—made an absolute confirmation, Roxas said.
“The diver could not come up directly (to the surface) because he had to stay underwater for his decompression (sequence). So he sent up his (waterproof scuba dive) slate with the information that the fuselage had been found,” Roxas said.
Even after Reed confirmed that it was Robredo’s body, “we waited for the body to surface,” Roxas said.
But at 8:15 a.m., any lingering doubt was extinguished. Robredo’s remains were brought to the surface and transferred to a Coast Guard vessel.
From the vessel, Eli Antonino, sister of General Santos City Mayor Darlene Antonino-Custodio, gave a positive identification that the body was that of Robredo.
Found near the door
Eli was coordinating civilian divers and volunteers, “so she physically knew Secretary Jesse,” Roxas said. “Robredo was first to be accessed by the diver since … Secretary Jesse was close to the door (of the plane). He was slowly brought up,” he said.
“The airplane was inverted (when found) and in that configuration, the two pilots were closest to the dashboard of the cockpit, so they are really situated in the deepest part of the cockpit. Secretary Jesse, being a passenger at the back, could be easily accessed,” Roxas said.
Asked to recall the President’s initial response, Roxas said:
Aquino’s initial reaction
“The President was very quiet. He sought absolute confirmation, and when it was confirmed, I had to call him back. He wanted to make sure that there was a close kin beside Ma’am Leni.
“Unfortunately, Ma’am Leni was not in her house. So we decided to tell her, instead of her getting speculations from other sources,” Roxas said, recalling the President calling Robredo’s wife at about 8:15 or 8:20 am.
“The President has already talked to the wife of Secretary Jesse informing her of the developments,” Roxas said at the briefing conducted prior to the President’s arrival. The President also called up Robredo’s brother, Butch, who was in Masbate at the time.
Retrieval operations continued throughout the day to extricate the two pilots, Roxas said, assuring the families of Bahinting and Chand that “scuba tanks and other equipment are being deployed underwater to continue with the retrieval operations of the other bodies inside the cockpit.”
Malacañang announced Tuesday that Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. had been designated officer in charge of the Department of Interior and Local Government. It said that a committee had been formed to prepare a state funeral for Robredo.
Roxas said the retrieval operation “was very, very delicate.”
“Jesse had been underwater for (three days), so it’s not easy to do this. The change of pressure … is very complicated, so we are seeking the help of the forensic people from the Army, the Navy, Philippine National Police, and the Department of Health to ensure that the body is preserved,” Roxas said.
He said divers—both military and civilian—exerted care in extracting Robredo’s body.
“The fuselage is inverted, so the retrieval was complicated because they could not just disturb the fuselage for fear of pushing it into deeper waters,” Roxas said.
The short briefing ended with Roxas thanking everyone for helping the government find Robredo. “The success is the success of everybody who helped. It was a massive operation. All of these proved that if Filipinos are united, they can accomplish good things,” Roxas said.
Supporters of Robredo thronged the seven-kilometer route from the Naga airport to the Robredo residence, many waving yellow handkerchiefs and ribbons and shedding tears. People patiently waited at the grounds of the house where Robredo’s family members were closeted.
In ceremonies at Naga Airport, the casket was turned over by the President to Robredo’s widow while a 19-member band of the Philippine National Police played a sorrowful score in the background. Only the family of Robredo was allowed at the waiting area of the airport.
Mr. Aquino accompanied Robredo’s family to the funeral parlor where the remains were being prepared prior to public viewing.
In Masbate City, Mayor Joshur Judd Lanete II of Placer, a licensed diver, told the Inquirer that he led the team that found the fuselage as early as 4:30 p.m. on Monday. The team included environment officer Edgar de Lara, and Police Supt. Gonzalo Villamor.
But lacking in deep-diving capabilities, the local dive team decided to mark off the area with an improvised buoy made of styrofoam and relayed the information to the British diver, Reed, and his partners, American Shelagh Cooley and Filipina Anna Cu Unjieng of the Evolution Diving resort in Malapascua, Cebu.
All hands on deck
According to Lanete, during their second dive which took them 50 meters below and lasted 27 minutes, they spotted the tail of the plane. “It was whitish … belly up,” recalled Lanete.
But since they didn’t have a closed-circuit rebreather system, which allowed for deep-diving, the group decided to swim up.
“We were just five meters away from the wreckage,” said Lanete, who then relayed this finding to the chief of the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, Darius Tuason who, in turn, passed the information to technical divers and military officials.
Lanete’s team was among the first divers to rush to the crash site on Saturday night. But at the end of the day, Lanete said the local divers were only too happy to lend a hand in putting an end to the suspense that had gripped the nation following the crash.
The massive search was a combined effort of uniformed services—Coast Guard, Navy and Army—and volunteer divers, enlisting 600 individuals, 17 ships of various sizes, and 9 aircraft.