MANILA, Philippines – About 300 rescuers searched Sunday 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 made a dramatic escape from the plane and was helping in the search, officials said.
The four-seat Piper Seneca took off 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 its two engines stalled. The Filipino pilot and Nepali student co-pilot attempted to land in Masbate province but missed the runway by about 500 meters (550 yards), Transport Secretary Mar Roxas said.
President Benigno Aquino III flew Sunday with his defense chief and the heads of the national police and the military to Masbate, about 380 kilometers (235 miles) southeast of Manila, to oversee the U.S. military-backed search.
Rescuers found a portion of the right wing and a copy of the flight plan underwater in an area where what appeared to be skid marks and metal parts on the seafloor were detected by sonar equipment. Divers and military aircraft suspended their operations before nightfall but planned to focus their search in that area on Monday, Roxas told reporters, adding that the search by boats would continue through the night.
Dozens of divers and ships scoured the sea while helicopters crisscrossed overhead all day. Troops and police searched along the coast and a U.S. Navy plane flew over the area twice to look for the wreckage.
Helping in the search was Robredo's police aide, Jun Abrasado, 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 regained consciousness and was rescued by fishermen.
In the chaotic moment before the plane went down, Abrasado 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 Sec. Jesse but could not find him. He swam out of the cabin," Roxas told DZBB radio.
"We hope he's just floating somewhere, holding to a piece of debris or wood," Roxas said of Robredo.
Abrasado was helping the search from his hospital bed by describing where and how the plane went down. He was bruised and his arms were in slings. 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.
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 City's mayor in 1988. He won a Ramon Magsaysay award — regarded as Asia's version of the Nobel Prize — in 2000 for good governance.
As interior secretary, Robredo was in charge of the national police and provincial governments, a role that turned him into the most visible Cabinet member as he dealt with natural disasters, crime and insurgency-related violence that included kidnappings and attacks by al-Qaida-linked militants.
Cabinet officials and friends gathered in vigils over the weekend to pray for Robredo in Manila and in his residence in Naga city, where he was en route Saturday to join the youngest of his three daughters who was to receive a medal for winning a swimming contest.
Retired Catholic Bishop Oscar Cruz, a prominent anti-gambling advocate, praised Robredo for remaining untainted by corruption and not abusing his powerful office like many politicians.
"You know how our politics is like garbage but this guy has remained clean," he said.