About 300 rescuers were searching yesterday for Philippine Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo and his two pilots after their small plane crashed into the sea while attempting an emergency landing. An aide of Robredo’s made a dramatic escape from the doomed plane and was helping in the search, officials said.
The four-seat Piper Seneca took off on Saturday from central Cebu city, where Robredo had met local officials and was 30 minutes into the flight to his hometown of Naga City when one of two engines failed and the plane began to wiggle. The Filipino pilot and Nepali student co-pilot scrambled to land in Masbate Province, but missed the runway by about 500m, Philippine Transport Secretary Mar Roxas said.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III flew yesterday with his defense chief and the heads of the national police and the military to Masbate, about 380km southeast of Manila, to oversee the US military-backed search.
Only the tip of the right wing has been found so far, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said.
Dozens of divers scoured the sea while helicopters and ships criss-crossed overhead. Troops and police searched along the coast and a US Navy plane flew over the area to help look for the wreckage.
Helping in the search was Robredo’s police aide, Jun Abrazado, who was the fourth person on the plane. He lost consciousness as the plane slammed into the water, but managed to swim out of the cabin when he came to and was rescued by fishermen. In the chaotic moment before the plane went down, Abrazado embraced Robredo and made sure their seatbelts were on, Roxas said.
“When he regained consciousness, he was still in the plane. The water had risen up to his chest in the cabin and he tried to grope for Secretary Jesse, but could not find him. He swam out of the cabin,” Roxas said.
At the time of the crash, the undercurrents were “very, very strong,” Roxas said. “We hope he’s just floating somewhere, holding to a piece of debris or wood.”
Abrazado was helping the search from his hospital bed by describing how the plane went down and where it was at the time. He was bruised and his arms were in a sling. The president visited him and then joined police, coast guard and army generals at a beach near the crash site where they poured over maps.
Roxas said sonar equipment that could detect metal objects underwater had been transported to the site.
Robredo, 54, is popular with the public for the reformist and clean image he has built in a country long exasperated with political patronage and corruption — social ills he has fought since entering politics as Naga’s mayor in 1988. The Harvard-educated politician won a Ramon Magsaysay award — regarded as Asia’s version of the Nobel prize — in 2000 for good governance.
As interior secretary, Robredo oversees the national police and provincial governments, turning him into the most visible Cabinet member in charge of dealing with major natural disasters, crimes and insurgency-related crises that includes mass hostage-takings and attacks by al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Cabinet officials and friends gathered in vigils late on Saturday to pray for Robredo in Manila and at his residence in Naga, where he was en route on Saturday to try to be with the youngest of his three daughters, who was to receive a medal for winning a swimming competition.