‘Magnificent 5’ key to Mayon plane crash response
CAMALIG, Albay, Philippines — When a team of disaster response officials gazed at the slopes of Mayon Volcano from a base set up in Barangay Anoling here on Feb. 21, they knew that beyond the jaw-dropping slope and perfect cone appearing on tourists’ photos lies an unforgiving challenge that would be made doubly difficult by days of rain in Albay province.
Three days had already passed since a light aircraft (Cessna 340A) was confirmed to have crashed near the volcano’s summit crater but they still had no idea if the people on board — pilot Capt. Rufino James Crisostomo Jr., mechanic Joel Martin, and Australian passengers Simon Chipperfield and Karthi Santhanam — had survived.
This was when five residents of Anoling came forward and offered information that disaster responders were in desperate need of getting as they race against time in finding survivors.
Gerry Nodalo, Jose Obal, Nuylan Nantes, Marjames Mariñas, and Roger Villanueva were the first to discover the wreckage of the aircraft and the bodies of the four victims near Mayon’s summit crater.
Despite not having any appropriate climbing and safety gear, their expert mountaineering skills and familiarity with the area enabled them to reach the location of the wreckage and take photos that they later showed to local officials and disaster response officers at the command center set up in their village.
Authorities gave the green light for retrieval the next day, on Feb. 22, but the operation was repeatedly suspended because of poor weather conditions and the hazard of loose soil and rocks on the steep slopes where the remains were found.
Before the main search and rescue teams organized by the government reached the crash site, the five residents had already found the wreckage and the victims.
Nodalo trekked down the slopes of the volcano on Feb. 22 to meet Camalig Mayor Carlos Irwin Baldo Jr. and show the photos they took at the crash site.
Baldo earlier said these photos were the main evidence to shift the search and rescue operation to retrieval, after confirming that all people onboard the plane had died.
In an interview on March 6, Nodalo said they decided to assist the rescuers because they were hoping to still find survivors.
“There were rumors that there were two survivors, so we took the initiative to find the crash site [ourselves] and help the rescuers even if the authorities didn’t send anyone to accompany us,” Nodalo said.
On their way to the crash site, they had to deal with near zero visibility, strong wind and rains, slippery slopes and exhaustion but they felt that they had the duty to continue.
In the photos shared by Nodalo on Facebook, he and his four companions climbed the volcano in their slippers, wearing only shorts and shirts. They used tree branches as trekking poles to support them as they navigate through Mayon’s steep slope.
“It was very tiring because we didn’t have any food or water. Then, after reaching the site, I only took pictures and hurriedly trekked down to report it to the mayor (Baldo),” Nodalo said.
The group climbed back and forth to guide the initial and newly deployed batches of responders from the base of the volcano to the crash site. They guided the mountaineers and government responders through the safest and shortest trail on the volcano to reach the wreckage and retrieve the bodies of the four victims.
At the flag ceremony and recognition rites held on March 6 by the local government of Camalig, Baldo honored the more than 700 volunteer responders who participated in the 12-day operation, which started as a search and rescue but ended with the retrieval of the bodies of the victims on March 2.
Baldo expressed his gratitude to those who gave their time and effort to ensure that the operation would succeed. He also thanked the Energy Development Corp., the aircraft owner, for its logistical support during the entire operation.
The program also recognized other rescuers, including members of the Albay Climbing Community (ACC), Mayon Mountaineers, Federation of Bicol Mountaineers Inc., Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines Inc., and local guides from the Wilderness Search and Rescue. At least 42 volunteers from these groups joined the mission to retrieve the victims.
The local government also lauded the efforts of government teams from the Naval Special Operations Group, the Bureau of Fire Protection, the Philippine National Police, the Philippine Army, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine Air Force, the Philippine Navy, and other volunteers from local government offices and barangay officials.
Vice Mayor Maria Ahrdail Baldo said the Camalig town council passed more than 1,000 resolutions to recognize the efforts of all government agencies, individual mountaineers, and other volunteers.
“The five resident volunteers were given the group alias ‘Magnificent 5’ because of their amazing agility, vigor and familiarity with the terrain and adaptability to the erratic weather conditions on Mount Mayon and its environment,” the vice mayor said, reading excerpts from a resolution.
“The ‘Magnificent 5’ contributed much to the search and retrieval by leading the responders on the right path and assisting them in the retrieval process with much enthusiasm, courage, and dedication,” she added.
George Cordovilla, 61, a member of the ACC, and the responders’ team leader, said the sunburn that they suffered were “worth it” because he was able to help other people, particularly the families of the victims.
His last climb at the summit crater was during Mayon’s phreatic (steam-driven) eruption on May 7, 2013. He was with 26 local and foreign mountaineers when the volcano erupted, which led to the deaths of a Filipino tour guide and four German nationals.
Cordovilla also joined the team of rescuers after that eruption.
“I also missed climbing Mayon, but this time not for pleasure, but for humanitarian reasons, to help the families recover the victims,” he said in a telephone interview.
They stayed on the slopes of the volcano for about three nights at a high camp, a two-hour trek from the crash site, using tarpaulin sheets anchored on rocks and bushes to protect them from the elements.
“We did not really sleep well; your butt and feet should hold your whole body or else you’ll slide down the 45-degree slope of the volcano,” shared Samuel Mabini, 33, a colleague of Cordovilla’s.
According to him, although they were familiar with the trail and terrain of the volcano, they were still nervous because any misstep on the slopes would lead to another accident.
Cedric Daep, chief of the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office, said the incident was the first of its kind handled by the province and the experience would help them in crafting a manual or contingency plan for the same operation.
Daep said Apsemo would recommend to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines to integrate all the experiences and management of the Cessna 340A search and retrieval operation to further enhance and improve its air accident operations manual.
“With this experience, we will be able to further improve the plan. We are going to review the gaps and problems encountered, manpower capacities, logistics support and identify all things that need to be considered so we can integrate all these in our plans,” Daep said.
He said the response to the crash on Mayon was different from how they handled disasters in the province, such as strong typhoons, volcanic eruptions, and road accidents.
“This can help us in our future plans, not only in air accident operations … We can share this even [with groups] outside the country,” Daep said.