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Remembering the crash that killed Pres. Ramon Magsaysay

CEBU, Philippines - Exactly 56 years ago today, a C-47 army plane named "Mt. Pinatubo," carrying President Ramon Magsaysay crashed in Mt. Manunggal, Barangay Sunog, Balamban town killing its 27passengers including the President.

Francisco Nuya was 19 then, when the incident happened. Francisco, son of Marcelino Nuya—the farmer who discovered the burning airplane - said it was 1 a.m. of March 17, 1957. They were still awake after a late-night trip from Talamban's market to sell onions, when they heard the sound of the coming plane.

"Naa pud mi bisita nga albularyo gikan sa pikas sityo, nalingaw sila sa sugilanon dihang naay niagi nga eroplano, kusog kaayo," he said. Francisco remembered his father noticing that when the plane went near their place, the sound suddenly stopped, that he said: "Hala nahug ra ba!" The Nuyas own the part of Mt. Manunggal where the plane crashed. Their house was built just about one kilometer below the crash site.

When it happened

The President was in Cebu City on March 16 for various speaking engagements. Philippine Herald reporter Nestor Mata, in a book "One Came Back: The Magsaysay tragedy" he co-authored with Vincente S. Villafranca, recalled that since they finished late, the President received at least two invitations to stay overnight in Cebu, one of these was from then Mayor Sergio Osmeña Jr. But Mata said the president declined, saying he had an early meeting in Malacañang the following day.

At the airport, the President was number 13 in the manifest, which, after a quick tension, prompted Luis Esmero, a Malacañang technical assistant from Cebu, to step in, and offered to take the President's number. But Mata said Magsaysay only replied: "No, no. You stay behind with the newspapermen." Then "he smiled, jerked off his shoulder up as if shrugging off the incident and afterwards shaking hands with those who stayed up late to bid him goodbye," Mata wrote.

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It was "sizzling hot" inside the plane, recalled Mata and the President explained to them that he had the air conditioning removed to avoid criticisms. "Air conditioned ito dati, pero pinaalis ko na dahil maraming hele-hele. Kaya pare-pareho na lang tayong pawisan," he said. The plane took off at 1:15 a.m. of March 17.

Mata wrote there were a few chitchats after takeoff at first, and since everyone was tired, they, including the President, all settled in their seats to sleep. The journalist said Mt. Pinatubo was flying smoothly by then, so he decided to settle at his seat, too, to fall asleep, but was stopped when "suddenly, like a thousand lights blinking out at the same time," he felt "a jolting fall on a bottomless pit."

"First, there was a flash - blinding, intense and incandescent - like a thousand flashbulbs popping at the same time; afterwards an explosion, an ear-splitting, violent wham as in the crash of a whole building tumbling against the pavement or the clatter of a tangled mass of steel and twisted metal hurtling from a precipice; then, the sharp, sudden fadeout of all the senses, each one of them fast blinking out after the another," Mata wrote in his book.

"And for a split second, in between the sudden blaze that looked like a thousand lights and the deafening explosion. The next instant I blacked out," he added.

The Heroes

It was early in the morning the next day when Primo Son, the Nuyas neighbor, who lived nearest to the crash site, came to Marcelino to inform him that there was smoke in his forest and believed that some "communists" might be setting it afire. Francisco said since he had a swollen leg, he did not go with his father and their dog "Serging" (who was later on named "Avante" so as not to offend the late Mayor Serging Osmeña Jr. whom he was named after) to find where the smoke was coming from. The foot trail to the crash site was winding and steep, or about 55 minutes, from the Nuya residence. Recalling his father's story, Francis said in the middle of the forest, Marcelino and Primo separated ways for bigger search coverage, but before parting ways, Primo warned Marcelino, then 43, to be careful as the communists might be armed. Not far away, Marcelino heard someone shouting: "Taooo, taooo…" It was later on learned that the one shouting was Mata, his face and parts of his body were burned. Not far from where Mata was found was the burning wreckage of Mt. Pinatubo. It was later on learned that only Mata of the 28passengers survived the crash.

Francisco said while their neighbors and some family members carried Mata in a hammock, his father made a mad dash to reach the nearest police detachment for help. He recalled how his father grouped his neighbors and male children to carry Mata, while the rest to search for survivors at the wreck, while he found help.

At that time, there was no telephone and transportation in the area that it took hours for Marcelino to reach the Philippine Constabulary (PC) headquarters in Jones Ave. The crash happened on a Sunday, it was only on Tuesday when the bodies of the victims were retrieved by helicopters, Francisco recalled.

Marcelino and Avante were both awarded gold medals by the PC for their “meritorious” acts. Avante also got another medal from an animal rights group. Francisco said his father and Avante went to Manila thrice to receive appreciations from the military and some public officials. Following their heroism, Marcelino was appointed as “teñente del barrio” of Barangay Sunog, and was featured in various newspapers and television programs. Marcelino died in 1992 (Avante long before that), and was buried in a simple grave in what used to be his own property (but was sold by one of his children later on) in Mt. Manunggal, as per his request. Francis still keeps the three gold medals and a worn copy of the “One Came Back.”

“The remnants of the crash”

Mt. Pinatubo, named by Magsaysay himself after an inactive volcano in his home province Zambales, was a newly reconditioned twin engine C-47, which served as the official presidential plane. The aircraft was said to be newly-bought, with less than 100 hours of logged flight. At the time of the crash, it had a crew of five, all officers of the PAF, led by Major Florencio Pobre, the pilot.

Today, except for the engine and a portion of what is believed to be the Mt. Pinatubo's mast with its transmission, there is nothing left of the said aircraft at the crash site.

Benedicta Nuya, daughter of Marcelino, said in the early 1980s, the aircraft was still there, albeit overgrown with wild grass, but since no one was guarding it and everyone could just come and see it, it was cut and hauled away, piece by piece. She recalled one alleged thief was even shot to death by another thief because of the valuable scraps.

The engine is just too heavy to carry for the thieves, but Benedicta said had it not for the intervention of some group, the local government unit of Balamban and the University of San Jose-Recoletos through its then president Rev. Fr. Rafael Cabarles, it would have also been carted away and sold to the junk shop. The engine, which was already moved several meters from the crash site, was returned to its place, but was already cemented heavily to prevent the thieves from removing it. The mast, meanwhile, cemented to the ground, now serves as a post of the chapel's altar, situated near the crash site.

Balamban Mayor Ace Binghay said those two are the only remnants of the crash. The mayor lamented how the people in the past had bartered part of their history for some cash. He said the crash site was densely forested at that time, and there was no one guarding it.

“It is important we not only learn our history but appreciate it as well. This is why I always encourage our people to visit the crash site because it is part of our history. It may be a tragic incident, but without it, I don't think Mt. Manunggal will be known all over the country,” Binghay said.

Today, Binghay said there will be a ceremonial wreath-laying at the monument of Magsaysay, to be personally attended by his grandson, Paco. The mayor said every year representatives of the Magsaysay clan always come to Mt. Manunggal to grace the commemoration of the death of the late president.

 And also today, Binghay said the hundreds of visitors of Mt. Manunggal and the whole of Balamban will remember all those who died in the crash. They are: Pabling Bautista (Liwayway Publications), Lt. Col. Alfredo Bustamante (Phil. Veterans Legion), former Senator Tomas Cabili, appointment Secretary Ramon Canus, Brig. Gen. Beneto Ebuen (Philippine Air Force Chief), Sgt. Isidro Fernandez (assistant chief, PAF), T/Sgt. Alfonso Ibe (chief of crew), Cong. Pedro Lopez, Paterno Magsaysay (President's cousin), Felix Manuel (Malacañang photographer), Sgt. Regino Manuel (AFP movie cameraman), Capt. Manuel Navea (co-pilot), Major Felipe Nunag (chief of security), Patricio Osmeña (assistant protocol officer), Jesus Paredes (journalist), Florencio Pobre (pilot), Cesar Rama (Phil. News Agency), Jesus Rama (brother of Cesar Rama), Lt. Leopoldo Regis (presidential aide), Eduardo Reyes (security agent), Sgt. Raymundo Ruiz (radio operator), Jose Arcilla (masseur), Celestino Teves (valet) and Antonio Tiangco (security agent). Their names are etched in a marble slab at the crash site.

And several steps up, watching the whole of Cebu like a boss, is the “man of the masses,” President Ramon Magsaysay, in a simple concrete statue. (FREEMAN)

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