Masbate, south Luzon (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - It was a toss-up between hitting a population center and the sea with the crippled aircraft approaching the Masbate Airport.
Capt. Jessup Bahinting decided to head for the water instead, sparing casualties on the ground but losing instead Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, his copilot and his own life as well, in the tragic crash of the twin-engine Piper Seneca at 4:30pm on Saturday.
Senior Insp. June Paolo Abrazado, the only survivor, recounted the harrowing moments before the aircraft fell off Masbate City in a three-page statement in Filipino, a copy of which was obtained by the Philippine Daily Inquirer Tuesday.
Robredo's body was retrieved from the sea on Tuesday morning. Bahinting and his Nepalese student copilot Kshitiz Chand's bodies have yet to be retrieved from the hull of the plane.
Abrazado, Robredo's police aide who clambered out of the aircraft before it sank and was rescued later by fishermen, said that the pilot was looking for the runway to make an emergency landing while the plane, which already lost its right engine, was flying very low over the city.
"There's the runway! There's the runway!" Abrazado quoted Bahinting exclaiming as they approached the airport.
But the aircraft missed the runway, glided to the left and headed toward the residential area of Barangay (village) Ibingay, he said. It seemed to him that Bahinting avoided crashing into Ibingay, one of the most populous villages of the city.
Like bomb explosion
As the plane banked to the right, sparing the village, it wobbled, "nosed up and nosed down," and finally plunged into the sea, he said.
"The sound of the crash was indescribable. I can't explain it. But it was like the explosion of a bomb," he said. "My initial reaction was to hug Secretary Robredo," he said.
Abrazado said he lost consciousness after that.
"When I regained consciousness, seawater was already rushing into the plane and the right side of the plane appeared to have disintegrated," he said.
"But the door of the plane remained locked by a latch. There was a piece of wood that apparently pierced the glass pane of the plane. And the water kept rushing in," he said.
Nowhere in sight
Abrazado said he looked around but could not see Robredo.
"We were seated beside each other. I did not know if it was me or he who got displaced. I just reached for my seatbelt because seawater was flooding the inside of the plane. I saw light coming in and I tried to surface. I did not know which part of the plane the light was coming from. I was rattled. I was losing my mind. I tried many times to unfasten my seatbelt but it seemed I could not even move my hands. When I unbuckled it, I squeezed myself out from the plane. I had drank seawater mixed with gasoline and I became dizzy.
As he floated away, he saw the plane bobbing up, with its tail the only visible part above the water. The tail, he said, was perpendicular to the surface.
"Then I could not move my hands again. I was still wearing my shoes and pants. I said to myself that I would die because I could not even move my arms. I assumed that my arms were broken," he said.
Then he saw his bag floating. "I summoned all the physical strength I could to reach for the bag. My face was aching. My body was failing me. I grabbed the bag and it kept me afloat long enough until a fisherman came to rescue me."
Abrazado said for about 15 minutes he was shouting and calling for help while the bag he was holding on for dear life was also slowly sinking.
"When I was rescued by a fisherman, I looked back at the plane. I saw no one from the plane was following me. I could only see what looked like debris," he said.
He said he told the fisherman to rush him to the Masbate police office. But the fisherman told him that a rescue team was waiting.
Abrazado's nose was bleeding by then.
Before the crash, Abrazado had sensed there were problems with the plane.
"While we were still up in the air, the display panel that also displayed a directional map kept on flashing: 'aviation expires 18 or November 28 2010.' I can see from the panel a distance notification that said 20 to 26 miles. I don't know what the expiration message meant. I wanted to inform the secretary about it but I did not want him to worry. I just made the secretary laugh by saying that there were many cases when a plane was flying with only one engine functioning," he said.
"We were relieved when we saw the runway. Then when we were about to relax, we began to be aware of the problem," he said.
The aide said the plane began to swoop nose down when the pilot glided it to the right. "It was then that the pilot lost control of the plane.
"I wondered why the pilot chose to land in Masbate when he said we were returning to Cebu. In fact, I was able to reserve a plane ticket from Cebu to Manila."
'Check engine' warning
Abrazado said when the group took off from Cebu, Robredo was rushing to go home because the Naga Airport would not allow a plane to land if they left Cebu at 2pm. They would be diverted to Legazpi City.
"Secretary Robredo was able to talk to the one in charge of the Naga Airport tower, and he got a go signal," he said. "But we still took off at 3pm."
Abrazado said he noticed that the plane looked old but he said the pilot told them that it was in good condition.
"I noticed that the copilot looked like a trainee and that he was a foreigner," he said.
"After we took off from Cebu and while we were in the air, the display panel suddenly blinked and displayed: 'Check engine,'" he said.
"The pilot told us that there was a problem and they could not proceed to Naga. Then Secretary Robredo told the pilot to just return to Cebu."
"I felt the plane turn and I started coordinating with our staff in Cebu and asked them to book a Cebu-Manila ticket," he said. "Secretary Robredo was relieved that we were returning to Cebu but we noticed that the flight was taking longer than expected."
Then, Abrazado said, the right engine suddenly shut down and he and Robredo got worried.
Still, the plane was running well, he said, although the pilots were trying to restart the engine that malfunctioned. The copilot even had a very relaxed demeanor when he turned to them at the back, he said.
"We asked the pilot if we were nearing Cebu and we were informed that we would be making an emergency landing in Masbate Airport instead," Abrazado said.
He said he tried to coordinate with the Legazpi Airport staff to provide a chopper as Robredo had an urgent engagement in Naga.
"While I was doing that, the plane was flying very close to the surface of the sea and I thought the plane was just making a final approach to the runway. I said to myself, we can survive this. I said even when the plane makes a water landing, I can manage to bail out and save my boss," he said.
Abrazado failed to do that. He was knocked out when the plane crashed into the water and Robredo disappeared from his sight when he regained his senses