MASBATE CITY—Fishermen on Thursday retrieved the body of Nepali student pilot Kshitiz Chand as police began an investigation into the plane crash that killed Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, the Nepali and the aircraft’s owner.
On Thursday, a passenger ferry, the MV Cooperative, saw the body of Chand about half a kilometer from the coast near the area where the wreckage of the plane was found. The ferry’s crew tied the body with rope and turned it over to Navy searchers, according to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
With the recovery of the missing Nepali, officials announced the close of search and retrieval operations and the formal start of the police investigation.
Police officials said investigators were looking for people who saw the plane plunge into the waters off Masbate City on Saturday afternoon and the fisherman who rescued Robredo’s security aide, Senior Inspector June Paulo Abrazado, 26, the lone survivor.
Divers recovered the remains of Robredo, 54, near the door of the four-seat Piper Seneca on Tuesday, and that of Captain Jessup Bahinting, on Wednesday. The bodies of the two, along with Chand, were seen by divers inside the aircraft on Tuesday, but by Wednesday, when divers got Bahinting, the Nepali had disappeared.
Chand’s remains were identified by his father, Tek Bahadur Chand, who flew to Masbate from Nepal on Monday.
The bodies of Bahinting, 61, and Chand, 21, were flown to Cebu Thursday.
The plane’s wreckage was refloated at around 7 a.m. and brought closer to shore Thursday.
Senior Superintendent Heriberto Olitoquit, the director of the Philippine National Police in Masbate, said all the belongings of the crash victims, including bags, were found in the wreckage and brought to the command center.
Best of ‘bayanihan’
Masbate Governor Rizalina Seachon-Lanete, described the search-rescue-retrieval mission as a showcase of the best of the “bayanihan” spirit of the people despite scarce resources.
But General Jessie Dellosa, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the operations also highlighted the military’s limited capability.
“We only have six Navy divers who can dive up to 200 feet (60 meters),” Dellosa said. He said the Philippine Army sent six divers but they could not go deeper than the others. “We have exhausted all the means available to us.”
Gazmin said the operation was a learning experience that should never happen again. “Our only weakness is the lack of trained people on the technical side because we lack the equipment,” he said.
“Next time, we will be more prepared,” he said in a news conference announcing the conclusion of the search operations. The mission, he said, created a template for what to do in case of a similar incident in the future.
Senior Supt. Pedro Cabatingan, PNP director in Bicol, said police authorities were completing the documentation of the incident, which included taking photos of the plane’s wreckage described as a “total wreck,” and making an inventory of recovered parts of the plane.
The right wing of the plane was recovered on Sunday, two days before the discovery of the wreckage.
“We are interested in the right engine,” said Cabatingan, describing this as “an investigative point of concern” after Abrazado claimed in his affidavit that the pilots were having problems with the right engine before the crash.
Technical assessments, however, rest with investigators of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) and other foreign experts. They will come in after the initial police probe, said Cabatingan. “The technical aspect on how it developed engine trouble is not within our (competence),” he said.
Most important evidence
“The most important evidence is the wreckage … which is pending turnover by the salvage team to me. But once we turned (this) over to CAAP, the ball is in the hands of the CAAP already,” he said. “We will not dilly-dally on this.”
“Hopefully, we can re-create [the aircraft’s condition] before and after the crash,” CAAP Director General William Hotchkiss III told reporters in Manila.
He said it was important that the two engines of the Piper Seneca aircraft, manufactured by Piper Aircraft Inc. based in Vero Beach, Florida, be recovered although he said foreign experts would have to be consulted to determine if the accident was caused by engine failure.
The CAAP earlier suspended the flying school and air taxi operations of Aviatour Air, which owns the aircraft. The agency has yet to conclude its investigation of a March accident involving another Aviatour plane that crashed in Camiguin province, killing the pilot and a Norwegian passenger.
Transportation Secretary Mar Roxas, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the congressional budget hearing, said he hoped that the inquiry would result in strengthening the country’s air safety regulations. For example, he said he wanted to know if the downed aircraft had a requisite emergency locator transmitter (ELT).
“A plane cannot be allowed to fly without an ELT. Why didn’t it work? Was it broken? Was it broken upon impact? Was it installed? These are the questions that the investigators will be asking,” he told reporters before defending his department’s proposed P32.74-billion budget next year.
Roxas said it was “no joke” that the Piper Seneca plane was found three days after the accident. If only the ELT worked, he said the search could have been completed within hours.
“This is a big tragedy, a big personal loss but this doesn’t mean that our airline industry is not safe,” he said. “I don’t want to jump the gun on the investigation but this will be comprehensive and exhaustive,” he said. “We will know the entirety of what happened so we could strengthen the (air) safety regulations in the country.”—With reports from Jerome Aning and Christian V. Esguerra in Manila and Jhunnex Napallacan in Cebu City
Originally posted at 10:40 pm | Thursday, August 23, 2012