Divers recovered the body of one of the Philippines’ most influential politicians on Tuesday, three days after a light plane carrying him and three others crashed into the sea, the government said.
Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo’s remains were found 55 metres under water near the coast of the central island of Masbate, where the plane went down Saturday, Transportation and Communications Secretary Mar Roxas said.
Roxas said divers battled strong currents to reach the wreck of the twin-engine Piper Seneca, which was lying overturned on the sea bed about 800 metres from the shore, and Robredo’s body was then brought up.
Divers were still trying to recover the bodies of the Filipino pilot, Jessup Bahinting, and and his Nepalese co-pilot, Kshitiz Chand from the sunken fuselage.
The dramatic search and rescue operations had gripped the Catholic nation, with hundreds joining prayers vigils and longtime friend President Benigno Aquino travelling initially to the crash site in an effort to help.
“He is a very big loss to the cabinet and to the entire nation,” an emotional presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte told reporters at a church in Manila where a special mass for Robredo was held.
Valte said Robredo, 54, was well liked by everyone and was very friendly even to the lowest employees in government.
Jose Fabian Cadiz, a vice mayor of a suburban Manila district and a close friend of Robredo, said residents in his home town of Naga in the far east of the Philippines were in mourning.
“He was a very good man, and an even greater public servant. He will be very missed,” Cadiz told reporters by phone from Robredo’s home where he was comforting the fallen politician’s wife and three daughters, aged 12, 18 and 24.
Robredo was flying to Naga from the central Philippines, where he was on an official trip, when the plane developed engine trouble, fell short of the runway and plunged into the sea.
The fourth person on the airplane, Robredo’s aide, survived the crash with non-life threatening injuries after hauling himself out of the plane as it was about to sink. Fishermen picked him up from the water.
Robredo was one of Aquino’s most trusted ministers.
As interior secretary, he was in control of the country’s 143,000-strong national police force, which has long been dogged by accusations of corruption and abuse.
Robredo was overseeing efforts to fight corruption in the force, part of a much-publicised anti-graft programme Aquino has overseen across all sectors of society since coming to power in 2010.
A former town mayor, Robredo became a rising star in local politics when in 2000 he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for good governance for transforming Naga from an impoverished backwater into a bustling commercial centre.
The well-respected awards recognise high-achieving and honourable people annually across Asia.
Robredo, who had still been mayor of Naga up until the 2010 elections, was one of the first people Aquino chose to be a part of his reformist cabinet.
“He walked a very straight path to governance with President Aquino, and his life and death should serve as an inspiration to everyone,” vice mayor Cadiz said.