[PHOTO - A photo handed out by the Philippine Red Cross-Masbate shows divers heading to an area in the water where a plane carrying DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo crashed off Masbate City.]

MANILA, AUGUST 21, 2012 (PHILSTAR)  By Delon Porcalla and Alexis Romero - About 300 rescuers searched yesterday for Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo and two pilots after their light plane crashed into the sea while attempting an emergency landing in Masbate on Saturday.

President Aquino flew to Masbate yesterday to personally observe the search.

A command center to coordinate the search and rescue operation was set up at a beach resort, about a kilometer from the crash site.

Transportation and Communications Secretary Manuel Roxas II, who accompanied Aquino, said a special sonar equipment had been flown to the island province to help in the search operation.

So far, only the right wing of the plane has been recovered.

From the command center, Roxas told reporters that they still hoped to find Robredo and the two pilots.

“We remain hopeful that Secretary Robredo was just carried by the current… and that he will be found,” Roxas said, adding that Aquino is “very emotionally attached to Jesse and he is doing everything he can.”

The four-seater Piper Seneca took off Saturday from Cebu City, where Robredo had met local officials, and was 30 minutes into the flight to his hometown of Naga City in Camarines Sur when one of two engines failed and the plane began to wiggle.

The pilot Jessup Bahinting and his Nepali co-pilot Kshitiz Chand scrambled to land in Masbate but missed the runway by about 500 meters, Roxas said.

Senior Inspector Jun Abrazado, Robledo’s aide de camp, made a dramatic escape from the doomed plane and was helping in the search, officials said.

Authorities said at least 25 sea vessels from the Coast Guard, the Philippine Navy, Philippine National Police, and from the local governments units in the province were involved in the search and rescue operations that resumed early yesterday.

The search and rescue were suspended at midnight due to the strong waves and current in the area, officials said.

The Philippine Air Force has brought in five helicopters, including three Sokols and 2UH1H, in search and rescue efforts while the US government has also joined in by fielding a US Fleet Survey team based in Cavite.

A US plane with Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) capability was expected to arrive at the crash site yesterday afternoon.

Air assets with IFR capability can handle deepwater maritime search and rescue operations in difficult weather conditions.

US embassy spokesperson Tina Malone said the air asset would be provided by the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines.

“We continue to work with the Philippine authorities to determine whether and how the US military assets can be further used to help in the search,” Malone said in a text message.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) also said a second airplane with IFR will fly from Japan and is also expected to reach the site yesterday.

Air Force spokesman Col. Miguel Okol said a Huey helicopter equipped with sonar equipment was also deployed at the crash site.

The Air Force also provided a C-130 cargo plane for President Aquino and the cabinet officials to Masbate.

The Navy deployed the BRP Simeon Castro, BRP Hilario Ruiz, BRP Carlos Alberto and a DF-33 fast craft.

“We will exert all efforts whenever possible to find the wreck and hopefully, there will still be survivors,” Navy chief Vice Adm. Alexander Pama said.

The Coast Guard is bringing in BRP Edsa 2, with specialized equipment and trained personnel for deep diving operations. The ship is equipped with a decompression chamber capable of conditioning any diver to go deeper.

The Coast Guard said the initial reports showed the plane sank in waters at an average of 67 meters deep (220 feet).

Masbate Vice Mayor Allan Cos said that an object, which might be the wreckage, had been spotted some 200 meters (660 feet) underwater but it was too deep for divers to reach.

National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) executive director Benito Ramos said a naval patrol gunboat with sonar capability detected the metal object under water.

Authorities, however, are still validating the find.

“We are still validating that. It could be a ship, a boat or whatever. There is still no confirmation as to what that object is,” Pama said.

Dozens of divers are still scouring the sea while helicopters and ships crisscrossed overhead while troops and policemen searched along the coast.

Nathaniel Servando, administrator of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), said rescue efforts would not be hampered by bad weather in the next three days.

“For the next three days, fair weather is expected over Masbate aside from isolated thunderstorms,” Servando said.

He said tropical depression “Igme” would have no effect in the area.

Chaotic moment

Helping in the search was 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 told dzBB radio.

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.

President Aquino visited Abrazado and then joined police, coast guard and the military at the command post where they pored over maps.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said Aquino wanted to fly out to Masbate upon hearing the news of the plane crash but was prevailed upon by the Presidential Security Group (PSG) since it was already late in the day.

“So they scheduled at the earliest possible hour… they flew at 5:45 early morning to go to Masbate,” Valte said.

Valte said they are hoping for the best. “We all remain hopeful at this point. We had that vigil yesterday (Saturday), and we all remain hopeful. We know that Secretary Jesse is a fighter and that we… this too shall pass for all of us,” she said.

Valte said government work would still continue amid the intensified rescue efforts to locate Robredo.

“Work goes on except that of course a lot of us are close to Secretary Robredo. We work with him, we interact with him on a regular basis. But work will not stop. Work will still be there. But, again, we all continue to hope and we all continue to pray,” she said.

Wife Leni Robredo said her husband called her up and they talked before the plane crashed about 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Leni though refused to be interviewed saying she has nothing to say for the moment while waiting for updates from the ongoing rescue operation.

Cabinet officials and friends gathered in vigils late Saturday to pray for Robredo in Manila and in his residence in Naga City.

Robredo was supposed to come home to be with the youngest of his three daughters who was to receive a medal for winning a swimming competition. - Evelyn Macairan, Helen Flores, Celso Amo, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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