MANILA – The investigating team of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) is now at the crash site in Patikul town, Sulu to start its investigation on the ill-fated C-130H "Hercules" cargo aircraft which claimed the lives of at least 47 military personnel and three civilians last Sunday.
"As of now, the investigating team has already arrived in the area to conduct its own investigation. It would have arrived last night but due to the absence of running lights in Sulu, their trip was rescheduled early this morning," Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in an online press conference Monday.
Arevalo said the AFP is determined to find out what really transpired in Sunday's tragic incident. According to available information, the aircraft followed the specified protocols regarding "approach speed (and) the landing spot".
"What is yet to be determined is what caused the aircraft to (go out of) the runway. This is going to be determined by a select group of tested pilots who will be the ones to assist in the conduct of the investigation," he added.
Arevalo assured the public that the AFP will be very transparent in the conduct of the investigation as the military is interested in determining what really happened and will use all inputs gathered in the course of the investigation to prevent such incident from happening again.
"Just like you, we are very much and keenly interested (in) determining what happened because all that we can do, all that (is) humanly possible for us to ensure that will not happen (again)," he said.
The AFP spokesperson also appealed to the public to avoid speculations or spreading news that are unverified regarding the incident because this would not help the current situation.
"Likewise, we would like to inform you that apart from the eyewitnesses accounts and data that the control tower in Sulu might have in their possession, we are also going to look for the black box or the flight data recorder which we are fortunate that this C-130 has so we have already cordoned the area to ensure the integrity of the pieces of evidence and other materials, all objects that could help us determine what transpired exactly in this particular tragic incident," he added.
Other aspects of the investigation include looking at the facility, equipment, weather and skill of the pilots.
"All these will have to be taken into consideration and I would not want to venture on any of those yet until and unless the investigation (has) been out," the AFP spokesperson said.
Arevalo said the C-130 involved in the mishap is in tip-top shape even if it is not brand-new.
"It's not brand-new but it's in very good condition. As a matter of fact, when it was delivered to the AFP it (had) more than 11,000 flying hours remaining and when this accident happened it still had around 11,000 flying hours remaining before the next maintenance of this aircraft," he added.
Also, Arevalo said there is no truth to rumors that the aircraft is defective, adding that all its pilots are all rated, seasoned, and experienced in flying the C-130.
He said the C-130 is one of the sturdiest, strongest aircraft in the country's inventory.
Arevalo said the AFP is willing to share the results of the investigation provided it will not affect national security.
"We assure our people that we are transparent indeed and the result of the investigation are available when completed, it's just that not all results of (the) investigation are for public consumption, but if there are specific issues that they would like to know with regard to a particular incident and that will not affect national security we are very willing to share that to the public," he added.
The aircraft was one of the two C-130H acquired through a grant from the US government that arrived in the country last January 29. It was formally welcomed to the PAF fleet during a ceremony at the Villamor Air Base, Pasay City on February 18.
The C-130 is a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft designed and built originally by Lockheed, now Lockheed Martin. Capable of using unprepared runways for takeoffs and landings, the C-130 was originally designed as a troop, medical evacuation, and cargo transport aircraft.
Arevalo said they are still yet to release the names of the survivors as not all the families of the fallen soldiers have been informed about the fate of their loved ones.
"We have not yet completed the necessary information or giving of information to the relatives of those who were deceased, it takes a process for us to (give this) information," he added.
This includes having priests or ministers in the scene so that they can explain the incident or circumstances, a medical practitioner preferably a doctor along with a close relative who can look or check the condition of the family member who will receive the said news.
"But we are assuring them that they are going to receive the necessary support and assistance that they deserve and also we are going to give the benefits that are due our soldiers because they died in line of duty," Arevalo said.
He added that AFP chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana has also given instructions to make sure that the fastest and most efficient way is utilized in identifying the victims so that their families can be informed immediately.
Arevalo said that Sobejana will be proceeding to Sulu in "due time".
As this developed, AFP public affairs office chief Navy Capt. Jonathan Zata, in a message to reporters, said Sobejana has approved and directed all military camps to lower their flags to half mast for six days starting Monday.
"For those camps with the wake of fatalities, (this) will continue until the internment," he added.
Aside from the 47 military personnel killed in the crash, three other civilians also died in the C-130 mishap, bringing the death toll to 50.
Some 49 military personnel and four civilians are undergoing treatment for injuries sustained in the crash in various hospitals in Sulu and Zamboanga City.
Around 96 people are recorded in the C-130's flight manifest, including three pilots and five aircrews.
"If there (is) any need for higher level medical treatment, attention or facilities that are necessary to treat our wounded soldiers, the AFP is willing to bring them to Manila," Arevalo said.
The AFP spokesperson also thanked airline companies like Philippine Air Lines for expressing its intentions to help in the medical evacuation of the wounded personnel.
"And of course, Air Asia which is an auxiliary reserve training unit of the PAF who also expressed a willingness to help in the medical evacuation," he added.
Arevalo also said that all air, sea, and land transportation assets of the AFP are focused on the ongoing retrieval operations.
Following the crash, the AFP spokesperson said all remaining C-130s in the PAF fleet will be grounded.
Prior to the accident, the PAF had four C-130s in its fleet, including the one that crashed and two undergoing maintenance.
Meanwhile, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar on Monday said he has directed the director of Police Regional Office Bangsamoro Autonomous Region to coordinate with local military units responding to the scene so that they can deploy assets that can help in the ongoing retrieval operations.
Also, he added the PNP is ready to extend whatever help it can to the families of the affected soldiers and civilians. ()