(Updated 11:52 p.m.) A small plane carrying Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, who was on his way home to Naga from a conference in Cebu, crashed in the sea near the coast of Masbate province Saturday afternoon, officials said.
His aide, Don Abrasado, survived the crash, but the fate of Robredo and the two pilots of the four-seater Piper Seneca plane is still uncertain, according to a tweet from Transportation and Communication Secretary Mar Roxas.
No details have been given about how Abrasado survived the crash, but Communications Strategy Secretary Ricky Carandang told GMA News Online that Robredo's aide fractured an arm and accompanied the Coast Guard to the crash site to assist in the rescue efforts.
The 54-year-old Robredo and the two pilots are considered missing. At around 7:50 p.m., rumors started circulating that Robredo was rescued by fishermen. However, the initial excitement on Twitter, including a celebratory tweet by a close Robredo family friend, was doused by official denials that he had been found.
Roxas identified one of the missing pilots as Jessup Bahinting, who is considered a local hero in Cebu for delivering anti-venom drugs in stormy weather for a snake-bitten child. Bahinting is also the CEO of the Mactan-based aircraft rental company, Aviatour Air, that owns the Piper Seneca that crashed.
With limited visibility, compressor divers took over from professional rescue divers Saturday night in combing the depths for Robredo and the two pilots, Roxas said. Surface search and rescue operations are also ongoing, he added.
"May report na may eroplano nag-take off from Mactan to Naga, nag-report ng emergency malapit sa Masbate," Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines head William Hotchkiss said in an interview on dzBB radio Saturday afternoon, among the first news reports on the crash.
Secretary Carandang said Robredo was on his way to his hometown of Naga City, as he usually goes home for weekends. GMA News' Sandra Aguinaldo reported that Robredo was hurrying home to attend the sports awarding of his daughter.
Robredo was in Cebu on Saturday on President Aquino's behalf for a national conference of Philippine National Police assets, or civilian volunteers who assist the police with community intelligence.
According to an early DILG tweet: "Pilot sent a distress call to Masbate Airport at about 5 p.m. requesting for an emergency landing."
According to a Reuters report, witnesses saw the plane plunging into the water, about 500 meters from the runway. Robredo was on the phone with his wife shortly before the plane went down, saying the propeller had stopped working.
Hotchkiss said early Saturday evening the aircraft that crashed was a private plane that took off from Mactan International Airport in Cebu at 3 p.m.