15 years after Flight 387 crashed, questions remain unanswered

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CAGAYAN DE ORO (MindaNews/03 Feb) —  Fifteen years have passed since the tragic crash of Cebu Pacific Flight 387 but questions remain unanswered on what really happened and who was to blame for the crash that killed all 104 people on board on February 2,  1998.

View Mt. Sumagaya in a larger map

Questions like whether the terrain map provided to pilots by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP, formerly  Air Transportation Office) was misleading, and whether or not these maps had been corrected to avoid risking  another crash in the same area, are waiting to be answered.

At the 15th anniversary of the crash last Saturday, rescuers said a crash incident involving a big plane similar to the ill-fated McDonnell DC-9 in the future would still face problems in coordination, equipment and trained personnel.

Rescuers noted that no proper evaluation was done after the month-long rescue and recovery mission 15 years ago.

Even the exact location of the crash site is still unresolved: Mt. Sumagaya or Mt. Lumot?

The CAAP report that came out several years later caused a stir among officials and rescuers involved in the operations.

Pilot error?

The report which is now archived in the National Library in Manila blamed Cebu Pacific Flight 387 pilots Capt. Paulo Justo and co-pilot Erwin Golla, unfamiliar flight route and bad weather for the crash that killed all 99 of its passengers and five crewmembers

A Manila Standard report dated March  27, 1998 cited then ATO chief Carlos Tanega as saying that “several violations in aviation safety rules” like poor operational control and lack of training of the pilots and dispatchers contributed to the accident.

But former Presidential Assistant for Mindanao Jesus Dureza, the crisis manager during the rescue and retrieval operations then said he found out the CAAP (then ATO) maps used by the pilots listed the elevation of Mt. Sumagaya at 5,000 feet above sea level.

Dureza said they found out during the operations in Mt. Sumagaya that the mountain was 6,000 feet above sea level or a thousand feet more than what was indicated on the CAAP-issued maps.

“I could not say a word. That means the pilots flew into the side of the mountain without knowing it because the weather was bad,” Dureza said in a telephone interview.

In his article “ My disastrous moments (Episode 2;  Flight 387) published in www.mindanews.com on June 1, 2011,  Dureza said flying at zero visibility, the Cebu Pacific pilots would have been misled into thinking they were safe above the mountain.

“Mt. Sumagaya was more than 5,000 feet. The plane was flying at 5,000 feet,” Dureza said.

Jerome Garcia, head of the De Oro Mountaineers Explorers  (DOME) who was the first to reach the crash site on Feb. 6, 1998, confirmed what Dureza said.

Garcia said when they reached the crash site, the first thing he noticed was how the plane sheared the tree tops and the peak of the mountain.

“Off airways”

“Twenty meters more and the plane could have cleared the mountain. I think the pilots were desperately trying to pull up,” Garcia said.

Dureza said that as the senior government official at that time, he was privy to the transcript of the last conversation of the pilots as recorded in the  “Black Box” which was recovered days later.

Instead of flying directly to Cagayan de Oro City, as was scheduled, the ill-fated flew to Tacloban, Leyte to deliver mechanics to fix another Cebu Pacific plane, also a McDonnell DC-9, before proceeding to Cagayan de Oro, on a path that would take  across Mt. Sumagaya in the Mt. Balatucan mountain range where the Citation shuttle jet used by former Defense Secretary Renato de Villa crashed on Feb. 1, 1997.De Villa was not on board the aircraft.

Dureza said that because of the “side trip,” the plane travelled “off airways,” so instead of  approaching Cagayan de Oro from the sea, it crossed over Butuan, flying inland and directly on its path was Mt. Sumagaya.

Dureza said when the pilots thought they had reached the “landing plate” where approaching planes make their final descent towards  Lumbia airport, they brought the plane down to 5,000 feet above sea level.

He said it was this time he heard the voice of the co-pilot telling Capt. Justo, “ May bundok yata sa area na ito Sir” (there could be a mountain here, Sir).

Then ruffling and shuffling of papers was heard from the “Black Box”, Dureza said, adding the pilots were “probably checking on the  (CAAP) map for elevation check.” Then a voice was heard, “leveling at 5,000 feet.”

“A few seconds later, a shrill electronic voice from the aircraft’s computer started shouting “Terrain, Terrain. Pull up; pull up, woof, woof!” Dureza said.

Dureza said several years later somebody rectified and changed the elevation of Mt. Sumagaya in the (CAAP) maps.

“I really hope they have already changed the maps. A plane will someday use that path again,” he told MindaNews.

In his June 1, 2011 article, Dureza said: “Although this is not the first time I made this public. I got curious again sometime long after that incident and looked again at a REVISED ATO (now CAAP) map and I noticed there was a change or rectification of that elevation data in the Mt. Sumagaya area.  I got some shivers thinking my suspicions were validated: that some mistake in the previous maps had been indeed found. And quietly rectified. Well and good. That would prevent similar accidents in the
future.  But don’t you think we owe it to all those lost lives to pin some responsibility to whoever goofed? And prevent similar tragic mistakes to unnecessarily take away precious lives?  Just thinking aloud.”

Crash site found three days later

When news came that Cebu Pacific Flight 387 was missing, two Huey helicopters from the Philippine Air Force Tactical Operations Group in Lumbia flew right away to make the search.

Aboard one of the Huey helicopters was Air Force Master Sergeant Abel Idusma.

“Our search would have taken us to Camiguin Island, then to Mt. Balatucan where the plane of De Villa crashed a year earlier,” Idusma said.

Minutes after taking off in Lumbia airport, Idusma said the chopper he was riding in, developed engine trouble and was forced to land on the river bed in Tagoloan, Misamis Oriental

“Had we continued, we would have crashed in the waters of Camiguin Island. I think this is my second life already,” he said.

Idusma said a second chopper that delivered spare parts to their downed helicopter found the crash site in Mt. Sumagaya on the third day after Flight 387 went missing.

But it was Garcia and the mountaineers who made the confirmation of  what the helicopter had spotted,

“We found the torso of a woman stuck on a plane window that got separated from the fuselage. There were pieces of clothing everywhere. Body parts were everywhere from the tree branches to the ground, The crash site was like a huge dump site,” Garcia said.

Garcia said they also noticed how the plane fought to clear the mountain.

“Entire tree tops were sheared. Only the trunks were left standing. As it flew desperately to clear the mountain, the fuselage disintegrated as evidenced by the plane parts strewn all along,” he said.

Garcia said the plane impacted near the top of Mt. Sumagaya, tearing the top of the mountain leaving the two plane engines.

“Twenty meters more, the plane could have cleared the mountain. If it was flying higher, it would not have crashed,” Garcia said.

It was here that led to the confusion over the exact location of the plane crash. In official maps, the mountain was called Mt. Sumagaya but Garcia’s group called it Mt. Lumot.

“The Higaonons called this mountain Mt. Lumot because everything grown there are mossy plants. That is their land. Why should we change the name,” Garcia said.

Idusma said Mt. Lumot is not in government maps because it is part of the Mt. Sumagaya mountain range.

Dureza places the crash site at “Sitio Lumot, Mt. Sumagaya.” (Froilan Gallardo/MindaNews)

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