The Air Philippines Boeing 737-200 was already on fire before it slammed into a coconut plantation at around 7 a.m. on April 19, 2000.
Witnesses heard explosions before the plane crashed at Sitio Kamanlangan, Barangay San Isidro in Babak, some five nautical miles away from the Davao International Airport.
Killed in the crash of Flight 541 from Manila were all the 131 passengers and crew, including four infants, making it the country’s worst air tragedy.
”It’s surprising why this thing happened despite the fine weather,” Transportation Secretary Vicente Rivera said as he expressed sadness over the latest air tragedy to hit the country. But there were reports that it was foggy on this island resort.
President Joseph Estrada said he was saddened by the accident.
Pope John Paul II also expressed his sympathy to the families of victims of the air crash.
In a message to Davao Archbishop Fernando Capalla, the Pope said he was ”deeply saddened by the tragic loss of lives and is praying for the victims asking God to give those who weep their loved ones courage and force.”
The plane, piloted by Capt. Evarisito Catipay and co-piloted by Capt. Don Sardalla, was 22 years old.
Air Philippines, believed to be majority-owned by tycoon Lucio Tan, who is also the chair and majority owner of Philippine Airlines, has a fleet of eight Boeing 737-200 jets.
Jose Antonio Garcia, Air Philippines president, said the company acquired the plane last year and had been using it for the last eight months.
”This is the first plane of Air Philippines that crashed,” he said.
”From our records, there’s nothing wrong in terms of technical aspect. This plane is 20 years old but it is maintained in accordance with the mandate of the Air Transportation Office (ATO). This is monitored regularly. This is not a vintage model even if it’s 20 years old.”
But the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States has raised concerns about the safety of the Boeing 737-200s’ rudder control system.
Samson Badilles, San Isidro barangay captain and among the first to arrive at the crash site, said he saw thick smoke billowing from the plane as it descended.
A few seconds later, he heard an explosion in mid-air.
Judito Rosalejos, a tuba gatherer who was 100 meters away from the crash site, said he heard explosions while the plane was still in the air.
Rosalejos is a tenant of Dorotea Pestano, who owns the property where the plane crashed.
Farmer Alvin Navarro whose residence is a hundred meters from the crash site, said he saw the plane circling around 10 times then heard what sounded like tin barrels falling. Seconds later, he heard an explosion.
Another resident said the plane was already on fire before it crashed.
The Boeing 737-200’s tail with the red-white-and-blue logo was the only aircraft part left intact.
The plane chopped off four coconut trees and felled six others, according to Gene Boyd Lumawag, the INQUIRER photo correspondent who was among the first at the crash site.
Mayor Rogelio Antalan, among the first to reach the site within 30 minutes after it was reported, said ”most of the bodies are charred.”
Antalan said there were few body parts thrown from the impact of the explosion. These were within a 10-meter radius.
It was unlike the 1998 crash of Cebu Pacific Flight 387 on Mt. Lumot in Claveria, Misamis Occidental where there were more body parts than charred whole bodies.
A total of 104 passengers and crew died in that crash on Feb. 2, 1998.
Lumawag, who also covered the 1998 crash, said there were more charred but intact bodies at the crash site yesterday than those in the Cebu Pacific crash.
Cellphones, rings and watches were among the items found at the crash site. A flight stewardess was identified through an unburned part of her uniform and her wrist watch.
Rescue teams that reached the area were from the Davao Amateur Radio Team and the 505 Rescue Wing from Cagayan de Oro.
Jesus Dureza, former Presidential Assistant for Mindanao, said the plane was expected to land at the Davao International Airport at 6:51 a.m. but was told by the control tower that a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila was still on the runway.
Dureza said the pilot steered the aircraft to the right side to Samal Island and radioed the control tower to say that he would approach the runway from the other end.
There are conflicting versions on how the plane crashed.
Capt. Jacinto Ortega Jr., Air Transport Office chief who arrived at noon from Manila, said Flight 541 was approaching Runway 05 at 7:05 a.m.
But it was advised by the airport’s tower to do a ”misapproach,” or abort landing, and turn around, because a PAL Airbus 300, was about to take-off from Runway 23.
Ortega said air traffic controllers at first thought the PAL aircraft was going to take off immediately so they advised Flight 541 to continue its approach toward Runway 05.
But when the PAL aircraft did not take off immediately, they advised Flight 541’s pilots to do a misapproach, according to Ortega.
There was, however, no PAL aircraft taking off at that time, but PAL’s Flight 809 was taxiing on the runway en route to the apron.
Even relatives of passengers of Flight 541 claimed that Flight 809 landed ahead of Flight 541.
The first PAL flight out of Davao for Manila leaves at 8:10 a.m.
Ortega said Flight 541 headed for Samal and later sought permission from the control tower to land at the airport’s Runway 23, the other end of the runway.
Ortega said the weather was fair although there was a low cloud ceiling for Davao.
He said air traffic controllers granted Flight 541’s pilots permission to land at Runway 23 since the wind in the area was ”calm.”
The first plane that landed in Davao was Centennial Air, at 6 a.m., followed by Cebu Pacific at 6:20 and PAL at 6:52.
ATO advised Flight 541 at 6:56 a.m. to turn around first because Flight 809, which had just landed, was still on the runway.
LAST RADIO CONTACT
The last radio contact from Flight 541 was at 7:01 a.m. with the message that it was seven nautical miles on final approach to Runway 23. But the runway was not visible.
At 7:03 a.m., control tower went into blind transmission to guide Flight 541.
”Orient 541 (code for Flight 541), if you can hear me, area is now ready for landing,” the radio message to Flight 541 went.
There was no response.
The control tower tried again, but still, there was no response.
At 7:18, the control tower informed the Disaster Coordinating Council that Flight 541 was missing.
Ortega said the plane was approaching Runway 23 when it crashed on a hill, some 450 meters above sea level, at Sitio Kamanlangan, Barangay San Isidro in Babak, Samal. INQUIRER.
A Chicago-based law group representing the families of the 131 passengers and crew of Air Philippines Flight 541 killed in a plane crash in the Island Garden City of Samal in 2000, has said that the American companies which leased the aircraft to the airline company had agreed to pay 165 million US dollars to settle the class suit filed by the victims’ relatives.
The Nolan Law Group based in Chicago, Illinois, said “the largest loss of life from an airliner crash in Philippine history has led to an unprecedented settlement in Illinois that could change the way old airplanes are leased to developing nations.”
Air Philippines Flight 541 crashed in Barangay Camodmod, Island Garden City of Samal, killing all 131 passengers on board, as well as seven crew members, as the plane approached the Davao International Airport on April 19, 2000.
The aircraft, Boeing 737-2H4, was previously owned by Southwest Airlines and was delivered to the country in February 1978.
The families of the victims led by North Cotabato Vice Governor Emmanuel Piñol whose brother, Paterno and his wife and children were among the fatalities, filed the multi-million dollar suit against the Chicago-based AAR Aircraft and Engine Group and Fleet Business Credit Corporation, the owners of the 20-year-old aircraft leased to Air Philippines.
The Nolan Law Group led by lawyer Donald J. Nolan, said “these companies should never have leased the decrepit airplane to Air Philippines,” a start-up airline.
“Yet, more than 100 people died because the leased airplane was regarded as a profitable business venture, in which higher lease payments were gained because the airplane was going to a carrier in the developing world,” the Nolan statement said.
Nolan added “one of the many lessons from this case is that a company leasing an aircraft has a duty to provide oversight to ensure that passengers fly on airlines with the latest equipment, the best maintenance and finest training available.”
Air Philippines Flight 541 was a domestic Air Philippines flight from Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila to Davao International Airport in Davao City. It crashed on April 19, 2000 as it was preparing to land in Davao, killing all 131 people aboard. It was the deadliest air disaster in the history of the Philippines.
FLIGHT 541: Have the victims finally rested in peace?
BABAK, Samal Island (MindaNews/19 April) — A cluster of mature mahogany trees representing the 131 crash victims of Air Philippines flight 541 that smashed into Sitio Bungtod, Barangay San Isidro here on April 19, 2000 is the only reminder of that ill-fated journey.
In the middle of the trees lay a basket of flowers and a lighted candle, at around 12 noon Tuesday.
About 150 meters away is a cluster of houses belonging to the Tudlasan family.
Pablo Tudlasan said that now and in the past few years the anniversary of the crash has passed in silence. “But the relatives can visit the crash site anytime,” said the patriarch of the Tudlasan family who owns the land where the ill-fated plane plummeted.
“It was around seven in the morning when we heard loud rumbling sound in the sky and in no time we saw the airplane plummet from the sky and burst into flames,” recalled Pablo’s wife, Merlinda.
“Murag daghan kaayo nga barel nagligid ligid unya daku dayon kaayo nga boto among nadunggan (It seemed like many barrels were rolling and then we heard a big explosion),” Merlinda recalled.
Air Philippines flight 541, a Boeing 737-2H4, was about to land at the Davao International Airport from Manila early morning of April 19, 2000. Flight controllers in the airport put the plane on hold as it was about to land because another aircraft was using the runway. It slammed however into the mountain about 500 feet above sea level and became the deadliest air disaster in Philippine history. On board the plane were 124 passengers and seven crewmembers.
Merlinda recalled that for a few months after the crash, children told of stories of seeing people in white clothes converge in the crash site and then disappear. One incident she vividly recalled was in October 2000 when a little boy in checkered shirt was seen playing with children near their house around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. When she tried to get closer to the playing children the boy in checkered shirt disappeared.
But after a few years, they have stopped seeing what appeared to be paranormal events in the crash site. “Nahaluna na gyud siguro ang mga kalag sa mipanaw atong crash (The souls of those who perished in the crash may have finally found peace), Merlinda told MindaNews.
“Sa una ga misa man dire basta anniversary, pero karun, sa kapilya man daw sa Penaplata ang misa,” (Before, they would hold mass at the crash site every anniversary, but now, we were told the mass will be held in the chapel),” she said. (BenCyrus G. Ellorin/MindaNews)