Five years after the country lost the revered public official, following an engine trouble that would cause the Piper Seneca he was in to crash off the shores of Masbate, killing the then DILG chief and the aircraft’s two pilots, Criselda Yabes, recreates those terrifying last hours from the recollections of those closest to him: his wife Leni, his children, and his aide-de-camp, Jun Abrazado, who survived the mishap.
The full story appears in the coming August 2017 issue of Rogue.
They could see the landing strip of Masbate’s airport from the left window of the Piper Seneca. The crew of two pilots were about to do an emergency landing. Something had gone wrong, but they were giving a thumbs-up sign that it could be managed. The six-seater aircraft was carrying only two passengers: the Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and his young aide-de-camp.
Jesse Robredo was rushing to be home in Naga for the long holiday weekend. That’s how it was for him. Naga was his ‘happy place,’ one of the bright spots in the heart of Bicolandia. Naga made him as he made the city good, leaving a stamp of reputation in local politics. That weekend in August 2012, he wanted to be with his wife Leni. He was trying to catch his youngest daughter’s swimming competition but missed it. Still, he wanted to be there. In Naga, he was grounded.
He meant to take the overnight bus ride from Manila with his two other daughters who were working and studying in the capital; and with the family all together, a four-day holiday was going to be a treat. But as things would have it, Jesse had to fly to Cebu on a Saturday morning, the 18th, for a public speaking occasion the president had asked him to do in his stead. There was a ceremony and he was the guest of honor, eager to take his turn at the podium so that he could fly directly to Naga from there. A private plane offered to give him the ride. It was waiting for him at the hangar in Mactan airport. Take off was at 2:30 in the afternoon.
Jesse’s aide Jun Paolo Abrazado, an officer of the Philippine National Police, sat to the left of the secretary in the plane. He buckled his boss’ seatbelt, but Jesse had the tendency of unbuckling it when he felt uncomfortable. At take off, Jesse was calm even when, at half an hour into the flight, the orange light on the cockpit’s panel started blinking. Jun heard a strange noise. The right propeller had stopped. The orange light stayed on, now permanently lit.
“Don’t worry, Sir. There have been incidents like this already, Sir, that only one engine was working and the plane was able to land”
The captain, who owned the plane, turned around and said, “Masbate tayo, Masbate!” The pilots were initially going to turn back to Cebu but chose the nearest recourse, which was to land in Masbate. They said it would take only 15 minutes.
“Are we good?” Jun asked, getting nervous and uneasy. The co-pilot, a Nepalese flying student, said yes with his head, and with a smile, gave the okay sign with his thumb.
Still the aide could feel the flight was not going right. He peppered the pilots with questions about the technical state of the plane when he thought it odd that neither of them was giving any indications or warnings at all.
Jesse waved his hand at him, as if to say, leave them be, let the pilots do their job. “Bayae na Jun,” he said in their language. Don’t bother them.
Jun, also a native of Naga, grew up in the city under the beacon of Jesse’s leadership. The Naga he knew was Jesse’s Naga. Making it to the national police, he found himself offered to be one of the secretary’s security aides, and he took it with pride. Jesse was mayor of Naga for 18 years, covering six terms of three years each put together, before he was appointed secretary of the DILG.
On that day, Jun wasn’t supposed to be on duty; his wife had just given birth to their first-born, and he was on paternity leave. His senior officers were beat from the secretary’s grueling schedule and had asked him to take his turn. He tried reassuring the secretary who sat beside him to his right, who was still unfazed by any possible danger, as if it was just one of those things and the plane would sort itself out for a landing in Masbate.
“Don’t worry, Sir. There have been incidents like this already, Sir, that only one engine was working and the plane was able to land.” It was more like reassuring himself. At which point June got a text message from his mother, unexpectedly. He told her they were about to have an emergency landing in Masbate, could she pray for them? He thought about his newborn son.
Later, it would come to his mind that his boss was a fatalistic man, having had so often heard him say in the course of their time together: “Hayaan niyo lang ako, kung oras ko na, oras ko na.”
From Jun’s recollection of that fateful day on August 18, 2012, Jesse Robredo, the man he worshipped like a father, was calm and composed all throughout. He even went through some documents that June had to pick out from his Samsonite backpack—which would save his life at sea after the wreck.
Jun also heard him talking to his wife on the phone, saying “Tatawag na lang ako Ma.” Ma. Mama. That had to be Leni, his term of endearment for his wife.
Jesse and Leni were on the phone for most of the day, catching up on their schedules. Jesse had already missed Jillian’s swimming competition and so there was no hurry for him to be back, Leni told him so; he could get back to Manila and take the night bus with his two daughters, Aika and Tricia. But there was this quicker ride to Naga, supposedly. “Basta the entire day nagtatawagan kami,” Leni said of that Saturday when she would last hear from her husband of 25 years. Don’t bother rushing. “Huwag na,” she told him, “Sabay-sabay na lang kayo ng mga bata. Huwag ka nang humabol kasi tapos na.”
When Leni got home after Jillian’s swimming competition, she saw her husband’s staff in advance of his arrival. She was surprised: he’s arriving today, not tomorrow, right? If Jesse was coming to Naga on that late Saturday afternoon, she decided she would pick him up at the airport. Jesse’s plane was supposed to land at 4:20 pm; Leni had just about an hour for a quick shower after being under the heat cheering for their youngest daughter do her quick laps in the pool. Jillian’s team won. She drove her earlier to the Starbucks on Magsaysay Avenue that was becoming a trendy hangout, where Jillian and the girls in the team celebrated their victory.
“I was near the airport already, bigla siyang nagtext na pabalik yung plane sa Cebu. So ako, tumabi ako sa roadside,” which was about a hundred meters away. She drove past the small bridge leading to the airport, after turning from the two-lane highway that would one day, a few years hence, have a life-sized billboard of her, the vice president of the country on a campaign to combat polio.
But there she was, just mere hours before her family’s life would turn upside down. “Ha? Anong gusto mong sabihin na pabalik yung plane sa Cebu?” Was that what Jesse told her? Why was his plane making a turn back to Cebu? She tried reaching him with her cell phone. He couldn’t be reached. She didn’t know what to do. If he was going back to Cebu, she might as well drive back home again and wait. She tried calling him again and again but it seemed he was out of the signal’s range.
Finally he answered one of her many attempts. “He didn’t allow me to talk anymore. He said, ‘Ma, tawagan na lang kita, may inaasikaso lang ako.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I didn’t detect anything wrong. Ang imagination ko nakabalik na siya sa Cebu.’” Evidently Jesse had no time to call her about the plane’s supposed emergency landing in Masbate.
“Basta the entire day nagtatawagan kami,” Leni said of that Saturday when she would last hear from her husband of 25 years.
If fate had been on Jesse’s side, his plane would have teetered on the runway of Naga, a lonely outpost in the sprawl of green fields. Jesse would have heaved content at the sight of Mount Isarog upon landing.
But the next three days would be the longest for Leni and her three daughters, a tragedy unimaginable in their lives, losing a man who was everything to them, the rock that gave their family a solid foundation.
PHOTOS OF SEARCH AND RESCUE OPERATION COURTESY OF NATIONAL DISASTER RISK REDUCTION MANAGEMENT COUNCIL AND CAAP MEDIA AFFAIRS; CELL PHONE IMAGE COURTESY OF RAPPLER; PHOTO OF FUNERAL COURTESY OF THE PRES. COMM. OPERATIONS OFFICE