MASBATE City--The light plane wobbled for several minutes before it dropped into the sea. It then stayed in the water's surface for about 10 minutes before it completely sank.
This was Joel Espinilla's eye witness account of the crash of the Piper Seneca plane that carried Interior and Local Governments Secretary Jesse Robredo and three others last Saturday.
Additional equipment was flown in while expert divers from the Philippine Navy joined the expanded search and rescue operations for the missing secretary and the plane passengers following President Benigno Aquino III's arrival in the city.
Aquino flew to Masbate City early Sunday along with Robredo's sister and several Cabinet officials to oversee the search for Robredo and two pilots of the five-seater plane that crashed in the water just off the city's airport on Saturday.
So far, only a wing of the downed plane was recovered at 9 a.m. near the crash site, about a kilometer from the shore, said Senior Supt. Heriberto Olitoquit, Masbate City police chief.
At least 25 sea vessels from the Coast Guard, the Navy, Air Force, Philippine National Police, and from local governments were mobilized for the search done about a kilometer from the shore.
A two-kilometer stretch of the coastline of the Masbate Bay has also been cordoned off to allow search and rescue volunteers to scour the coastline for Robredo and the pilots.
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 40 meters to 67 meters, Coast Guard officials said.
Cebu Coast Guard Deputy Commander Anelito Gabisan said they sent their search and rescue vessel that carried 10 divers and medical personnel to Masbate last Saturday night.
Espenilla, a 37-year-old coastal resident of Masbate City, said he was playing chess on the shore with some friends at 4:30 p.m when they saw the small plane wobbling.
He said the plane then went belly up before it dropped. Espenilla said they thought it would drop on the houses nearby but it went down into the water, on its side.
"It happened very fast. The tail was bobbing up for about 10 minutes before it sank," Espinilla said.
He said it was low tide at that time so there were few fishermen in the area that could have helped.
So far only one of the passengers, Robredo's security aide Chief Insp. Jun Abrazado, was plucked out from the sea by passing fisherman. Abrazado suffered a fractured arm and had bruises all over his body.
After getting first aid, he joined the search and rescue team to help them pinpoint the crash site.
Abrazado reportedly tried but failed to extricate Robredo from the plane after impact.
"I think both Secretary Robredo and Jun Abrazado were able to send (text) messages (before the crash). I think Mr. Abrazado sent it to one of his colleagues that they were having engine trouble and then Secretary Jess sent a message to his wife also on the same subject,” said Palace deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte.
Robredo and pilots Capt. Jessup Bahinting and Nepalese Kshitiz Chand remained missing 16 hours into the search.
Espinilla said those on the shore who saw the plane drop wanted to help but were scared that the aircraft would explode.
He said they only learned that it was Robredo on board the plane when top local officials led the search at 5 p.m.
Robredo's flight manifest was found floating 750 meters from the shore yesterday afternoon.
A report gathered by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), showed that Robredo's plane was just 150 feet off the ground on its final approach to land at the Masbate Airport before it crashed into the sea
The private plane owned by Aviatour Air started experiencing engine trouble an hour before it crashed into sea and disappeared. The company was owned by Bahinting.
Based on information acquired from the Public Affairs Division of the Mactan Cebu International Airport Authority (MCIA), Secretary Robredo was already booked on the Cebu Pacific flight 5J572 that left for Manila from Cebu at 3:50 p.m.
Sonar equipment donated by the Cebu Yacht Club was airlifted from Mactan Benito Ebuen Airbase in Lapu-Lapu City to help in the search. Inquirer with reports from Correspondents Jhunnex Napallacan and Jessa Chrisna Marie J. Agua