ON March 17, 1957, or over 50 years ago today, the late president Ramon Magsaysay died with 24 others who were on a plane taking off from the Cebu Lahug airport for a flight north to Nichols Field in Pasay city. It’s said that some people, who learned about the plane crash and the tragic end of the life of a leader, were in shock and wept openly. He was “man of the people” and inspired many of them.
The presidential plane left at midnight after an entire day of public speaking in Cebu city, including in three schools. And there were parties. When the president got back into the plane for the flight up north, the weather was fine, the moon was bright.
But it was a dark day. The country lost a sitting president in an accident someone like me at 21 years old could hardly take. I was a partying girl just off my teens and didn’t care about the lives of national leaders. But the accident affected me.
The news said it was a Douglas C-47 plane named “Mt. Pinatubo” carrying the president. It crashed on the slopes of Mt. Manunggal in the town of Balamban, Cebu. It’s said the plane was a “newly reconditioned twin-engine plane.”
Included in the 25 people who died were Rep. Pedro Lopez of the 2nd District of Cebu, former Senator Tomas Cabili of Lanao, the education secretary, and the commanding general of the Philippine Air Force. A brother of the president identified the body of the leader through the man’s wristwatch and dental records.
On the day Magsaysay’s plane crashed, a classmate in Manila woke up on the same day to prepare for her birthday party, only to hear the news on radio about the crash in Cebu. Except one or two, the friends called to say they couldn’t attend a party at this point in time of a nation’s pain.
A few months from there, I took the trip back to school. The plane I was in was taking almost the same route to the Manila airport in Pasay city. We passengers even looked down, pointing to Mt. Manunggal in fear. It was a terrible feeling all over again.
I was then in my early college years at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at UST. When I came home for the summer vacation in the next year, there was still something in the air in Cebu which I could feel, of talk and thoughts still about the terrible accident. It would take long for anyone in this country to stop being affected by the tragedy.
Was this how it is when a nation loses a president in this terrible way?
Of the 26 people on the plane the President, his presidential staff, news correspondents and the plane crew only a news reporter survived, helped by villagers near where the plane crashed.
Reporter Nestor Mata was covering the presidential trip on that day for the Philippine Herald. After the crash, he found himself lying down by the side of a cliff. Farmers living “near” the crash site carried Mata down the mountain in the place now called Barangay Magsaysay. In the hospital in Cebu city, Mata quickly dictated to a nurse a press dispatch to his paper. The headline was, “President Magsaysay is dead.”
The “accident summary” reported the cause of the accident: metal fatigue. “The fatigue broke a drive shaft that caused a power failure on board the plane shortly after takeoff.”
Back to college classes, my favorite journalism professor Felix Bautista, former editor of Philippine Herald, invited Mata to speak for his class and there the survivor shared his unforgettable experience with us of coming out alive in an accident that killed a country’s president.
At 87 years old, Mata died only early this year.
Today, the President Ramon Magsaysay Death Anniversary Climb probably is taking off as you read this.