Soldiers searched among coconut trees in the town of Patikul, Sulu, Monday for the flight data boxes of an aircraft that crashed and killed 52 people in one of the country's worst military air disasters.
President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday assured the families of the soldiers killed and injured in the Philippine Air Force (PAF) C-130 crash that their sacrifices were not in vain.
“The life of a soldier is always valuable, whether in the fields of fighting or events such as this. They died for our country and for that I am very grateful to those who died and those who helped,” he said in a speech at the Armed Forces Western Mindanao Command headquarters in Zamboanga City, where the remains of some of the soldiers were transported.
Duterte honored the casualties and said the national government would provide protection and assistance to the fallen soldiers’ families, including expenses for their daily living and tuition to fund their children’s education.
“The most important thing is that those who have died… they shall not have died in vain. They died for our country, and it behooves upon us to continue the help when they were allowed as they are now in heaven,” he added.
Duterte also vowed to provide a bigger budget for the Armed Forces as he visited the Camp Navarro General Hospital (CNGH) also in Zamboanga to award the Order of Lapu-Lapu with the Rank of Kampilan to injured soldiers.
He later proceeded to the Naval Forces for Western Mindanao headquarters to lead the symbolic Conferment of the Order of Lapu-Lapu with the Rank of Kalasag to the fallen soldiers.
The Hercules C-130 transport plane was carrying 96 people, most of them recent army graduates, when it overshot the runway while trying to land in sunny weather on Jolo island in Sulu province–a haven for Islamic militants–on Sunday.
Fifty-two people, including 49 military personnel and three civilians, died when the plane "skidded" and burst into flames in a village, said Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo.
Another 53 were injured, most of them soldiers. It is not clear if the pilots were among the survivors.
The three people killed on the ground had been working in a quarry, the village leader Tanda Hailid said.
Photos of the scene released by the Joint Task Force-Sulu showed the damaged tail and the smoking wreckage of the fuselage's back section lying in a coconut grove.
"We have people on the ground to make sure the integrity of the pieces of the evidence that we will retrieve, most particularly the flight data recorder," Arevalo said.
"Aside from eyewitness accounts, we are also looking for recordings, radio conversation recordings between the pilot and the control tower."
Arevalo said the military had secured the crash site and would ensure that militants on the island did not disrupt search efforts.
Most of the passengers had recently graduated from basic military training and were being deployed to the restive island as part of a counter-insurgency effort in the Muslim-majority region.
The military has a heavy presence in the southern Philippines where militant groups, including the kidnap-for-ransom outfit Abu Sayyaf, operate.
"This is one of the worst tragic incidents that happened in our armed forces," said Arevalo.
C-130s have been the workhorses of air forces around the world for decades, used to transport troops, supplies and vehicles.
The second-hand Hercules that crashed Sunday was acquired from the United States and delivered to the Philippines earlier this year.
It is one of four in the country's fleet. Two are being repaired while the other one has been grounded following the crash.
"These are all seasoned and experienced pilots that's why we are also unable to immediately say how this came into being," said Arevalo.
"Even if these (military assets) are not brand new… these are airworthy or seaworthy or landworthy,” he said.
A team of investigators from the Philippine Air Force (PAF) has arrived at the crash site and will begin their probe, Arevalo added.
The accident was the deadliest for the PAF, said Jose Antonio Custodio, a military historian and analyst.
"This ranks as the worst crash of a Philippine military aircraft with 50 dead so far as compared to the 40 dead in a 1971 crash of a PAF C-47," Custodio said.
It was the latest in a series of air force accidents this year.
Last month, a Black Hawk helicopter went down during a night-time training flight, killing all six on board. The accident prompted the grounding of the Philippines' entire Black Hawk fleet.
On January 16, a PAF UH-1H helicopter crashed near Bukidnon's Barangay Bulonay. The seven people aboard were killed.
Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said Duterte would be briefed further on the C-130 crash upon his arrival.
Sobejana said the remains of soldiers who perished in the crash are on their way to Zamboanga City onboard a Navy vessel before they will be transported to Northern Mindanao where most of the fatalities came from.
He assured the families of those killed and injured that the government would attend to their needs.
“We have our team of investigators, we are in the thick of our investigation to determine what really happened. Let us wait for the probe to be completed so we can give accurate information,” Sobejana said, even as he appealed to the public to refrain from speculating about the cause of the crash.
Sobejana said the three civilians who died in the incident were on the ground when the C-130 Hercules cargo plane crashed and exploded near their homes in Sitio Amman, Barangay Bangkal, Patikul. Four other civilians were injured.
Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar said he has ordered police in the area to coordinate with local military units so they can help with retrieval operations.
Meanwhile, senators pushed for their own investigation into the accident.
Senator Grace Poe, chairperson of the Senate public services committee, said that at the right time, they expect a thorough investigation to see what can be done to avoid similar incidents and how to make military planes safer.
Senator Joel Villanueva said no Filipino soldier should die from their own military hardware.
Senator Richard Gordon said the plane crash in Sulu “is an urgent call affecting national security.”
“C-130s are the workhorses of any army. C130’s efficiency and load capacity, whether troops or cargo during conflicts or disasters, is tailor made for our 7,641 islands,” the senator said.
Gordon underscored the need to acquire more C-130 planes as he pointed to how many the Philippines has in comparison to other countries.
“Singapore, an island state as big as SBMA (Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority), has 10 C130s. Thailand has 12. We have only three C130s and just lost one!” he added.
He also said there was a need for “strong maintenance operations and continuous training.”
Earlier, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana ordered a full investigation to get to the bottom of the incident once recovery operations have been completed. With AFP