ADVOCACY MINDANOW: MY disastrous moments (Episode 1: Flight 387)

DAVAO CITY (30 May) — I was invited by MindaNews to speak before a motley group of media practitioners and workers in disaster management a few days ago. I gladly went and shared some of my insights. I had the memorable and agonizing privilege of “presiding over” some disasters since the time of President FVR and President GMA and a session like this was an opportunity to look back, recall and relive those trying moments. It is therapy of sorts to me too.

My eight months of being presidential assistant for Mindanao in 1998 towards the end of the FVR term were my most “disastrous” moments.  There were a string of man-made and natural calamities then that I had to attend to.  So much so that when FVR led a lean delegation of officials for his “exit call” on then US president Clinton in 1998 in Washington DC, he put me on the plane with him saying: “Jess, since you assumed, there had been a string of those disasters. Maybe, we can spare Mindanao of another one if you’re not there”. It was a good break for me – and a historic one of course.


EPISODE ONE. (Cebu Pacific Flight 387 plane crash, February 1998) Indeed, it might be really coincidental but I can clearly recall my first day of assumption into office and the string of calamities and disasters that followed. I remember that I was directed to proceed to Tacloban, Leyte where FVR was meeting with his cabinet then. Upon arrival at the cabinet meeting venue, I noticed that the president was in a serious huddle with Jomag (General Jose Magno), one of his close aides in a corner. Then he called for me and simply said: “Jess, good you are here. Go to Cagayan de Oro now. There’s a plane crash there.” Then he convened his cabinet while I left in a huff missing to attend what was supposed to be my first official cabinet meeting.  I boarded a waiting Huey helicopter which flew me across the channel to Mactan, Cebu where I caught the first available plane to Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro City. I did not have any inkling that this day was to be the beginning of a long, grim and harrowing experience as crisis manager of Cebu Pacific’s tragic “Flight 387”.


ONLY BODY PARTS — The task was not only to manage the recovery and retrieval operations of dead bodies –or more precisely, body parts – as there were no intact bodies to speak of considering the fact that the aircraft slammed the mountainside of Mt Sumagaya in Sitio Lumot about 5,000 feet above sea level. Volunteers and rescue teams even had to climb tree tops to pick up parts of bodies, flesh hanging by branches. There were no intact bodies to speak of.  The work included dealing with the distraught and angry families. Then bringing down body bags by choppers that had to hover over tree tops with buffeting winds at perilous high altitude, as there were no landing sites on the steep hillside. I remember one American representative of an investigating team who flew with me in one hop to the site and back in those conditions. He told me: “Sir, I was a Huey pilot in Vietnam before but we could not do what your young Air Force Huey pilots just did today.”


The Air Force, Army, PNP, the search and rescue teams, media, the kibitzers, the public coming in all shapes  — everybody had to be managed and coordinated. Then the grim task of trying to put together and identifying detached body parts, flesh, belongings, etc.


CEBU PAC’S “SHINING MOMENT” –The whole Cebu Pacific and other Gokongwei facilities converged in what was described paradoxically as the airline’s “shining moment” in the face of a tragedy. Then young Lance Gokongwei, freshly taking over the family’s burgeoning business empire, flew down to Cagayan de Oro City and from there marshaled what was to be the biggest humanitarian offensive of a company. It was my own baptism of fire as Mindanao official. So it was for Lance who just came home from schooling abroad to preside over a tragedy.


I recall all Cebu Pac facilities nationwide were closed, all aircrafts grounded and everyone from pilots to flight attendants, office workers, to janitors all swooped down and encamped for days and weeks in Cagayan de Oro in an effort to all help. Every family victim was assigned assistants to take care of all needs to help assuage the pain and agony of losing loved ones.


“SHIT SESSIONS” — I had my own moments of agony. As crisis manager, I held twice daily briefings on what was happening in the search and rescue operations. For several days, families had to be content with reports only due to the difficult terrain and retrieval constraints. Of course, this did not sit well with many of them. We were cursed, insulted, embarrassed during these briefing sessions, many demanding why the delay, why bodies were not yet brought down, etc.  Understanding what the relatives were going through, after the first briefing session, I opened the next one announcing: “Before I give you the latest reports, let’s start with a ‘Shit Session’. Go ahead and shit all of us here then we proceed.” It worked.  After that emotions were contained somehow every time I would meet with them for the latest updates.


ARMED MEN — One incident stood out. When the small pieces of body parts in the National Power Corp hangar at Lumbia airport, which was converted into a huge morgue, started to pile up in body bags, one jeepload of armed Muslims from Lanao came and demanded that they retrieve their relative’s remains. They became belligerent when they were told we could not do it because the bodies could not be identified and there were no intact parts to go by.  I was called to face them and explain but they were still adamant and threatening with their firearms.  In my frustration, I called for the leader of the group, asked what the body weight of their victim was. When he said about 150 pounds, I led him inside the hangar, pointed to the bits and pieces that were being classified and processed for DNA identification. Then I told him to go ahead and weigh 150 lbs from some of those in the stockpile to bring home, if he would insist.  When he saw the real situation, he piped down and left in a huff.


The effort was so done that I told Lance, after we closed shop with memorial services at the Oro Gardens where the remains of more than 100 lost passengers were interred that the bonding, the collective effort and the achievement of  surviving the trauma that everyone went through made Cebu Pacific a better airline. I am only surmising now but what the airline has achieved over these years and what it is today can probably be traced somehow to that spirit that welded the whole team for more than a month in Cagayan de Oro and its environs attending to a tragedy.


What the public perhaps does not know is that every first week of February, to this day, orphaned families make it a point to either re-visit the sites, do memorial services, mark milestones like birthdays, etc and Cebu Pacific quietly stands by every family with the same support as it did some 13 years ago.


BAPTISM OF FIRE — Every time someone approaches me today and tells me, “We were together at Flight 387” even if I cannot  remember his or her face or name, there is an instant bonding. Then a little lull of remembering. Go ask every rescuer, media man, Cebu Pac personnel who was there or just a fruit vendor hanging around then. You’ll get the same response — and feeling.


That was to be my baptism of fire. And Lance’s too. (NEXT: CEB PACIFIC PART 2)