President Benigno Aquino took the lead in the search for Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, a day after his plane went down near the central island of Masbate.
Aquino flew to Masbate where military divers and helicopters were scouring the area for the minister, who is missing along with two pilots.
Transportation Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas, who accompanied Aquino, said special sonar equipment had also 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.
Four people were on the private plane. Robredo’s aide, June Paolo Abrazado survived with only a few injuries while the Secretary and two pilots identified as Capt. Jessup Bahinting and Nepalese Kshitiz Chand remained missing.
The Aquino administration has intensified its efforts to find Robredo and the pilots by sending at least 25 sea vessels from the Philippine Coast Guard, the Navy, Air Force, Philippine National Police, and from the local governments.
The Philippine Navy has deployed its naval ships BRP Simeon Castro and BRP Hilario Ruiz and a diving team from the Naval Special Operations Group (Nagsog) to help in surface and underwater search and rescue operations.
The divers of Navsog have Trimix capabilities, which allow deep diving operations.
A navy islander plane and another diving team were also dispatched from Sangley Point in Cavite to assist in search operations, said Navy spokesman Colonel Omar Tonsay.
Philippine Air Force spokesman Colonel Miguel Ernesto Okol told INQUIRER.net that five helicopters, including its most modern assets, three Sokol and 2UH1H, were also enroute to Masbate.
From an area of about two kilometers from the shore, the search now covers a four kilometer-by-three kilometer site, in a depth of from 40 meters to 67 meters, according to notice posted in a bulletin board of La Villa Resort, which is now being used as a command center in the search and rescue efforts being overseen by no less than President Aquino.
Roxas, who was designated spokesman for the Robredo search, said two US aircrafts did a fly-by in the area last night but found no trace of the aircraft or of its missing passengers – Robredo and pilots Capt. Jessup Bahinting and Nepalese Kshitiz Chand.
He said they hoped to get better results with sonar equipment expected to arrive this morning from Cebu.
The government also called a prayer vigil at a Roman Catholic chapel in Manila for the 54-year-old cabinet member, a father of three daughters and a former city mayor.
He is considered to be one of the most influential Philippine politicians and a close presidential aide.
As interior secretary, Robredo was in control of the country’s 143,000-strong national police force which has long been dogged by accusations of corruption and abuse.
In recent months, he had ordered investigations into alleged financial irregularities over the construction of police stations and purchase of helicopters and rescue boats.
Robredo was also playing a key role in the dismantling of private armies allegedly deployed by some powerful provincial governors and city mayors ahead of congressional and local elections in 2013.
A former official at an ice cream company, Robredo was elected mayor of Naga City in the strife-torn Bicol region, south of Manila in 1988 at the age of 29, making him the youngest mayor in the country at the time.
His success in turning the once-sleepy city into a trading, housing and education centre won him many honours including a 2000 Ramon Magsaysay award, considered Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize.
After serving nine years as a city mayor, he joined Aquino’s successful campaign for the presidency in 2010, endorsing his reformist platform. Robredo was subsequently appointed to the cabinet.