The nightmare of Flight 5J971: “If the plane explodes, no one would know what really happened”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/09 June) — Cebu Pacific Flight 57J971  was originally scheduled to leave at 4:55 p.m. on Sunday, June 2. While we were waiting at Gate 116, Terminal 3 at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport,  it was announced that our flight would be delayed for 20 minutes. A few minutes after the announcement, we were told to proceed to Gate 120. Thinking that we still had a few minutes left, my mom and I decided to stop by the toilet first which was near the gate. When we went out, I was surprised that passengers were already boarding. So we fell in line and boarded the plane as well.

During the flight, we encountered several instances of turbulence. We were reminded to fasten our seatbelts, especially when we were near Davao already. During those times, I would tell myself, “para  ka lang nakasakay ng roller coaster, para ka lang nakasakay ng roller coaster!” You know that feeling when riding a roller coaster and you are about to drop from above and then the drop happens? That’s exactly how I felt. So I thought of the roller coaster as I prayed my favorite prayer, “Angel of God.”

When we were near Davao, the pilot announced that we would be descending already and we would land at 7:05 p.m. While we were on air though, we noticed we were circling at least twice before the actual descent. My mom and I often travel by plane so we know this is not usual and if done at all, it means the plane cannot descend as yet. More often than not, this happens when there is traffic on the runway.

When we were landing, I was surprised that it was so fast. Based on my observation during plane rides, if the descent is normal, the tires are released slowly,  the landing and stopping is smooth.  On June 2, everything was so fast – the descent, the landing and the stopping. Biglang bagsak, may narinig kaming pumutok and habang umaandar ng mabilis parang nagbabounce bounce yung plane then sudden brake na tumilapon talaga kami (It was a sudden drop, we heard something explode and while the plane was moving so fast when it landed, it kept bouncing until there was a sudden brake and it felt like we were all thrown off).

I used my hand to prevent my head from hitting the seat in front of me. We were seated on the 6th row near the front and near the plane’s left wing so the impact was really strong. I looked at my mother (who has hypertension) and I saw how scared and surprised she was. I tried to calm her down knowing that her BP (blood pressure) would rise under these circumstances. I also told the other passengers near us to calm down. Nobody from the crew reacted immediately, as if they were also shocked as to what just transpired. I told my mom, to turn on her phone and call my brother immediately to inform him. I was aware that gadgets and mobile phones should remain switched off but I was thinking at that time na pag sumabog itong eroplano wala man lang nakakaalam sa anong nangyari (if the plane explodes, no one would know what really happened). I also called a friend and texted two other friends: “Nag overshoot kami! Lumampas kami runway! And2 pa kami sa loob ng eroplano, nag-aantay anong nxt mangyayari. Nasa may damuhan kami e” (We overshot the runway! We’re off the runway! We’re still inside the plane, waiting what’s going to happen next. We’re in the grassy area).

It was then when the other passengers started to panic, stood up and shouted “hindi pa ba tayo lalabas?”(aren’t we disembarking?)  There were a few passengers who had the initiative to remind other passengers to remain calm. It was only then that a crew told those who stood up to please go back to their seats because the weight of the plane might shift and we might go outbalanced.

I asked my mom and seatmate who was seated beside the window “wala naman amoy gas noh?”(it’s not smelling gas, right?) thinking that a fuel leak might cause an explosion. The man near the window said, “wala naman pero sabog na yung engine sa may wings” (no smell but the engine near the wings is a goner). After a while, the pilot appeared and informed us that that heavy rains and winds caused our plane to veer off the runway.

At that time, I was thinking of my mother who was beside me, and my sister at home, who is a special child.  We just lost my father last April and if my Mom and I will be gone because of this incident, what’s going to happen to my sister? I promised my father that I would take care of Mom and Ate.

While waiting for the crew to tell us what to do, which took several minutes, my Mom and I already felt pain in our hip and backs…as if we fell on the stairs, buttocks first then flat on your back. That kind of feeling. I just constantly reminded my mom to breathe in and out. “Inhale, exhale,” like a mantra, I kept on telling her that.

Finally, we were informed that we could get off  the plane already. However, it was Captain Bo  (Ensign Marlon Bo, a Navy reservist and a graduate of the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy in 2003)  who managed to “become the leader of the pack.” We knew that when people tend to panic, it would result to chaos so we shouted that alighting should be done by row and Captain Bo shouted to the group that we should do it by row. Fortunately for us, he had more presence of mind than the crew.

We were instructed to leave our things behind especially the big ones and those in the overhead compartments. We were asked to remove all pointed objects to avoid the possible piercing of the inflatable slide. Luckily, I was using sling bags both for my personal stuff and notebook. The first was just on my lap and the notebook bag under the seat in front of me. Hence, I was able to carry both items on our way out. My mom though was only able to bring her shoulder bag. Good thing her medicines were in that bag.

Being near the front row, we were one of those who were able to get off the plane ahead of the others. When we got off the slide, we had no idea where to go. We were looking for some people to guide us particularly coming from Cebu Pacific but we saw nobody.  While walking, I asked myself and asked my mom, “wala lagi taga Red Cross, 911 or police or taga media noh? Ang alam ko mabilis yan sila sa ganyan eh (No one from Red Cross, 911 or police or the media. As far as I know, they’re supposed to be quick during instances like this). All we saw were firetrucks. I said, “okay, at least there are fire trucks.”

We stood there looking for the terminal, thinking we might be able to walk towards it. However, it was dark and raining. Again, nobody told us what to do next or where to go. No bus, no people from Cebu Pacific. So I just asked a man near the firetruck “Asa na mi muadto?” (Where do we go?). He pointed to a van, a single one. So we went there, rode the same and we were brought to the terminal. I do not know how the other passengers were able to go to the terminal because at that time that van was the only passenger vehicle I saw.

We went to the baggage area without any clue as what to do next. Nobody from the Cebu Pacific assisted us or guided us or even just comforted us. We were wet, hungry and our backs were aching. There were no seats around so we had no choice but to seat on the conveyor.

At around 8:30 p.m.,  a personnel from Cebu Pacific finally decided to show up and announce the possible options regarding our luggage. Here’s a photo of him. By the way, the guy in blue on the left,  that’s Captain Bo. Continuing his role as leader of the pack, he asked the passengers to listen first to what the Cebu Pacific crew had to say before bombarding the latter with questions.

OPTIONS. At around 8:30 p.m. of June 2, a personnel from Cebu Pacific finally showed up at the baggage retrieval area to announce the possible options about the luggage of the passengers on board Cebu Pacific Flight 5J971. The man in a light blue shirt is "Captain Bo" or Ensign Marlon Bo, a Navy reservist who took the lead in calming down and directing the passengers on what to do after the plane veered off the runway. MindaNews photo courtesy of MY
OPTIONS. At around 8:30 p.m. of June 2, a personnel from Cebu Pacific finally showed up at the baggage retrieval area to announce the possible options about the luggage of the passengers on board Cebu Pacific Flight 5J971. The man in a light blue shirt is “Captain Bo” or Ensign Marlon Bo, a Navy reservist who took the lead in calming down and directing the passengers on what to do after the plane veered off the  runway. MindaNews photo courtesy of MY 

The Cebu Pacific representative informed us that we can have our luggage sent to us, most probably the following day. Of course, the passengers reacted stating that some had carried items which cannot be identified since they do not have name tags on them, and other items were perishable.

Passengers were agitated. Many were irritated and requested that they be allowed to talk with management together with the media.

We were then informed to proceed to Gate 2 on the second floor and it was there where we waited. It was almost 9 p.m. No decent meals were given and there were no medical personnel around. It was only after several minutes when people with sphygmomanometer appeared and asked for passengers with “high blood.” I pointed to my mother and her BP was taken. At first a battery operated one was used and it reflected 148 as her systolic. Afterwards, it was done manually and her systolic was 140. Quite high in her case and it was probably adrenaline which was kicking in since most of the time, when her systolic reaches that number, she already gets dizzy.

The fact that only biscuits, water and juice in foil packs were distributed did not help the situation of those with medical problems at all. Some passengers were even joking, “Unsa man ni? Mura man pud ta galamay diri uy!” (What’s this? It’s as if we are in a wake). I myself, have a history of ulcer but good thing was that I ate a sandwich during the flight so I know that intake can still sustain me for a few more hours.

However, I worried for my mother who was not only hypertensive but also diabetic, meaning skipping meals is a no-no! I had to go out and search for a store in the premises which was still open during those hours. At that time, passengers whose flights were cancelled were also on their way out of their respective gates so imagine the annoyance of the people. You could say there was quite a commotion .

I saw a store whose staff was about to have their meals. They were about to close already. I inquired if they still had any meal with rice. The owner asked her staff if there was available rice and asked me how many I needed. I replied two but one would suffice. I explained the situation of my mother who cannot drink her medicine if she has not eaten yet. She understood and gave me one meal to go. Blessed be the people who have good hearts.

Eventually, our handcarried items were handed out. We were like children during Christmas. Items were raised and asked “kanino ito?” (whose is this?) I also saw two fellow passengers who were Koreans who seemed to be lost as to what was going on. I asked them “where are you going?” They gave me a confused look.  I guessed they couldn’t speak English fluently so  I asked them, “address?“ The girl replied “taxi.” I repeated, “where are you going? If I’m the taxi driver, what will you tell me?” She said, “school. Study English.” I said, “show me the address.” She showed me an address in her mobile phone. I asked a ground personnel where that place is and they told me it’s just in front of the airport. I asked them to assist those Koreans and make them ride a taxi.

We were then told that we can claim our checked-in luggage and so we proceeded to the conveyor area on the ground floor.  We were told that our taxi fare would be shouldered by Cebu Pacific but nobody gave us anything. We were picked up by my friend so we did not wait for the fare offer. We just wanted to go home. Some passengers were approached by people from the media. Yep, it was only on their way out that the media were able to talk with the passengers.

The following day, our backs still hurting, we decided to consult an orthopedic and to have an X-ray. We got the results of the X-ray. Good thing everything was okay, no fractures, but the pain lasted for several days. Despite the same, we are still thankful. We are alive and that’s what matters most. Daddy, I guess the “family reunion” will have to wait at a later time. We are still needed here. I know you are happy just the same.

P.S. It is just so sad that some can even comment that “that’s what you get for promo and low-priced tickets.” Cebu Pacific, being a common carrier is bound by law to observe extraordinary diligence regarding the safety of the passengers.

Article 1733, Civil Code of the Philippines states: Common carriers, from the nature of their business and for reasons of public policy, are bound to observe extraordinary diligence in the vigilance over the goods and for the safety of the passengers transported by them, according to all the circumstances of each case.”

The price does not distinguish the amount of vigilance required of the airline to ensure the safety of the passengers, the cargo and luggage.  Life is precious. Every passenger is therefore entitled to quality service she/he deserves.

By the way, we paid for the full and regular price. Ours was not a promo ticket.

(MY, as she prefers to be known, is an alumna of one of the law schools in Davao City. She lives in Ma-a, Davao City)