PH Mourns The Country’s Worst Military Air Disaster That Killed Dozens In Sulu

Search and retrieval operations following the crash of the Philippines Air Force Lockheed C-130 plane carrying troops, in Patikul, Sulu province, July 4, 2021. Armed Forces of the Philippines – Joint Task Force Sulu/Reuters

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines mourns the 50 people who were killed during the plane crash in Sulu, Malacañang said on Monday with President Rodrigo Duterte likely to pay a visit to the survivors of the country’s worst military air disasters.

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules on Sunday was carrying 96 people, most of them recent army graduates, when it overshot the runway while landing Sunday at the Jolo airport in Sulu province, military officials said. It slammed into a coconut grove beyond the airport and burst into flames in a noontime disaster witnessed by horrified soldiers and villagers.

“Nagpapaabot po ng pakikiramay si Presidente Rodrigo Roa Duterte sa pamilya ng mga nasawi ng bumagsak na C-130 sa Sulu,” said Palace spokesman Harry Roque. “Nagluluksa hindi lamang ang Sandatahang Lankas ng Pilipinas, ngunit ang buong bansa sa malungkot na pangyayaring ito.”

(President Duterte extends condolences to the families of those who died in the crashed C-130 in Sulu. The whole nation, not just the military, grieves for this sad incident.)

“Nananalangin po kami na yakapin ng Panginoon ang mga nagdadalamhating pamilya para maibsan kahit paano ang kanilang nararamdaman… Pinagdarasal din natin ang mabilis na paggaling ng mga survivors,” he said in a press briefing. 

(We are praying that the Lord embraces the grieving families so that their feelings could be somehow eased. We are also praying for the swift recover of the survivors.)

Troops, police and firefighters rescued 49 military personnel, including a few who jumped off the aircraft before it exploded and was gutted by fire. Seven people on the ground were hit by aircraft parts and debris, and three of them died, the military said.

Duterte might visit a hospital treating the wounded, “if plans push through,” said Roque.

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules was one of two refurbished U.S. Air Force aircraft handed over to the Philippines, Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia, as part of military assistance this year. 

The aircraft earlier had carried two-star Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., his wife and three children from Manila to southern Cagayan de Oro city, where he’s set to become the new military regional commander on Monday. 

Those who boarded the C-130 in Cagayan de Oro for the flight to Sulu were army troops, many of them newly trained recruits, to be deployed in the battle against Abu Sayyaf militants in the south.

Brawner was stunned to learn the plane he’d just flown on had crashed. “We’re very thankful that we were spared, but extremely sad that so many lost their lives,” Brawner told The Associated Press. 

A video taken by troops showed the aircraft landing in clear weather then vanishing beyond the airport. “It vanished, it vanished,” one soldier exclaims. Dark gray smoke later billowed from the crash site in a wooded area as the troops, yell, “It fell, it fell” and let off curses in horror.

“They were supposed to join us in our fight against terrorism,” Sulu military commander Maj. Gen. William Gonzales said. Government forces have been battling Abu Sayyaf militants in the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu for decades. 

It was not immediately clear what caused the crash and investigators were looking for the C-130’s black boxes containing the cockpit voice and flight data recorders.

Regional military commander Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan said it was unlikely that the aircraft took hostile fire. Military chief of staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters Sunday that “the plane missed the runway and it was trying to regain power but failed and crashed.”

An air force official told The AP that the Jolo runway is shorter than most others in the country, making it more difficult for pilots to adjust if an aircraft misses the landing spot. The official, who has flown military aircraft to and from Jolo several times, spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak publicly.

President Rodrigo Duterte expanded the military presence in Sulu to a full division in late 2018, deploying hundreds of additional troops, air force aircraft and other combat equipment after vowing to wipe out Abu Sayyaf. The small but brutal group has been blacklisted by the U.S. and the Philippines as a terrorist organization for ransom kidnappings, bombings and beheadings.

Before Sunday, the Philippine air force’s deadliest disaster was a crash in a rice field north of Manila in 1971 that killed 40 military personnel, military historian Jose Custodio said.

A recently delivered S-701 Blackhawk helicopter crashed more than a week ago near Clark freeport, a former U.S. air base, killing all six air force personnel on board. 

The Philippine government has struggled for years to modernize its military, one of Asia’s least equipped, as it dealt with decades-long Muslim and communist insurgencies and territorial rifts with China and other claimant countries in the South China Sea.

Associated Press, ABS-CBN News

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