My Cebu Pacific near-death experience
We were seated on row 22 with a great view on the back of the left engine that was heavily damaged. With smoke filling the cabin and the airline staff not letting us out, I just held my wife Joy and my son Jouno closer and prayed that no explosion would occur.
It all started while we were waiting to board at Gate 16 in T2 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. We were informed that our flight will be delayed for 20 minutes due to the late arrival of our turn-around aircraft, much to the dismay of the passengers awaiting boarding. Nevertheless, we patiently waited.
After 5 minutes, we were asked to transfer to Gate 20 as there were changes on the flight schedule. When we got there, we were directed to board a waiting plane. I thought, "Our original aircraft isn't here still? Oh well, I guess this is better than waiting further." This change, however, turned out to be a critical one.
A few seconds after the plane took off, I noticed a sudden change in the humming of the engine. It was pretty much like shifting to second gear in a car even when you haven’t gotten the initial speed that you want. I thought the timing was off. We were able to reach our flying altitude, yet it was rough sailing from then on. The fasten seat belt sign was turning on and off several times, as there were a lot of air pockets and turbulence along the way.
Throughout the flight, the passengers noticed something strange. The pilot went to the restroom about 4 times within an hour, and every time he got out he looked dazed. At one time, he even asked the stewardess to make coffee for him. I do not want to make any speculations, but most people can hold it even for the entire trip. A fellow passenger who was seated on the first few rows in front, whom I was able to speak with after the incident, proved this fact true.
The captain announced our flight details, saying that we were already on our initial descent towards Davao International Airport and that we would land at 7:05 pm. I remembered him saying that the weather was fair but a little cloudy in Davao, which generated a sigh of relief for most passengers.
Suddenly there was a really strong turbulence that went on for a while when the staff were collecting garbage. We were told to go back to our seats and that we were already landing in a few minutes.
One thing I really noticed was the speed with which we approached the runway. I am a frequent traveler, and this is my 11th plane ride this year alone. We were really going in fast! I did not see the flaps moving even a bit when we were approaching the runway. Based on my experience, they should have initially moved as we approached to subsequently decrease our airspeed, but there was no movement at all. I was shocked when I looked out the window, and we were that close to the ground at that speed!
When we hit the ground, it felt like a bowling ball hitting the floor. It was a really hard landing. Right on impact the flaps fully opened at once, and the wheels were screeching like crazy. From the sound of it, the wheels were not turning at all as the pilot slammed the brakes, hoping for a complete stop.
This caused a lot of commotion among the passengers as we all lunged forward. I could hear all the hand carried baggage rumble to the front of the aircraft. I could just remember looking at my wife on my right and holding her hand and when I saw her in the emergency landing position, I just held on to my 5-year-old son tightly bracing for impact. I could see the family sitting adjacent to us doing the same and protecting their month-old baby.
At the back of my mind I was thinking, "This is it!" I was waiting for something to blow up... The plane veered heavily to the right. The sound of metal dragged on the ground was something you won't forget pretty easily. Then I heard a pop from underneath us — probably the wheels breaking off or going aground — just before the plane took a front nose-dive on the grass. Luckily when the airplane stopped, it didn't happen.
The scene from inside the cabin was like a scene taken directly from a Hollywood crash movie flick. It was eerily dark with only the emergency exit lights on. We could hear the sound of the rain and wind gushing outside, and the loud cries of babies on board the plane. Nobody talked for a few seconds until my wife shouted "open the doors," and then people suddenly broke their silence. The smoke inside the cabin was enough to stir panic among the passengers wanting to get out of the plane. Yet we were instructed by the cabin crew to stay put, as they would wait for further instructions from the captain.
What? Really? You're gonna wait for this plane to blow while we were still inside? It was total mayhem. Everyone wanted out. People were crying. Some were trying to use their mobile phones to contact their loved ones outside, which I just realized could have been disastrous as it could ignite a flame that could blow us all off to the heavens.
One minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes gone by, and we were left to ourselves trying to figure out what to do next. Some members of the cabin crew were crying as well as they tried their best to calm the passengers down. No ambulance, no fire trucks and no help from outside on the first few minutes of the crash. Twenty-three minutes after and with only smoky air to breathe, not only oxygen but patience was running dangerously low.
It took the courage of one person, whom we only know as Captain Bok from the Philippine Navy, to stand up and calm everyone down. He knew what he was doing, and he was in control when even the cabin crew looked like they were really at a loss on what to do. Capt Bok gave clear instructions for everyone to sit down, so that we could leave row by row to prevent the plane from tilting over. He was the clear definition of a “guiding voice.”
In the midst of high levels of adrenaline rush, the heroes in all of us onboard sufficed as every man in the plane urged the elderly and those who have children to go out first, not minding the dangers that awaited us should the plane catch fire and blow to pieces. Amidst the chaos, it was the elderly and children first. Classic human nature at its best.
I saw my son and my wife make it out safely from the window, and that was enough to draw a smile on my face and my heart. Thank God they are safe. Now I have to save myself as well.
When I finally got out of the plane I let out a big sigh of relief. I looked at the plane for the first time and saw the huge crack in one of the engine turbines. It was just then that I realized how precious life is and how someone from above just gave us a second serving of life. It was a brief 10 seconds of my life, but it could easily have been the last.
There were only two vehicles that ferried the passengers from the grounds to the terminal. One was a private van — most probably owned by somebody working on the premises — and another ambulance. The passengers were left standing in the rain waiting for a ride. From the moment of impact, it took more than 5 minutes for the fire fighters to reach the scene. There were no medical first responders. In fact, there was no one else. I can just imagine what would’ve happened to us if the plane did blow up and there were serious injuries on site. It would have been a mess.
All the passengers were now safe at the baggage conveyor section, eagerly awaiting guidance or any support from the Cebu Pacific management. But lo and behold, again there was no one to face us. Wow, in the movies you could see an outpouring of support for people who had just been through such a traumatic experience. There was no food for the passengers, no warming blankets for those who were dripping wet from the rain, no drinks, nothing! Not even the sight of the cabin crew consoling passengers. There were no seats for us to rest our shaking bodies, so most people just sat on the conveyor itself. And then I remembered, yes, this is not Hollywood.
One employee from CebPac announced that we should not worry, as our baggage will be delivered door to door for compensation. This however backfired since all passengers were aware that most of their hand-carried items left on the plane during the emergency exit did not have any tags on them. It looked like some of the passengers were ready to pounce on the little fellow.
We were all led to Gate 2 where we settled down and talked with Cebu Pacific’s management about the ordeal. Those who are from Davao were given money for cab fare, while those with connecting flights were offered hotels and meals. This was also the time where the hand-carried items were released to the passengers. We were also given juice drinks and a bottle of water during this time, but it wasn’t enough to quench the anger of some of the passengers who were clearly dismayed with the absence of medical responders more than two hours after the incident. There were 3 passengers who needed help: an older woman whose blood pressure shot up, a young girl in her 20s clearly suffering from panic attacks, and a pregnant lady complaining of severe abdominal pain. Yet here was no help at this time.
Luckily my cousin, Carlo Dela Cruz, is a nurse working in Marbel Doctors Hospital. Together with another passenger, they were able to deal with the situation. So just like what we did on board the aircraft, we took it upon ourselves to help each other. The two gallant nurses took care of the affected passenger until help arrived — 3 hours after the incident. Help came in the form of one woman who had a stethoscope and a BP apparatus. Yep! You heard me right.
We went back to the conveyor to get our luggage and went our separate ways, but still finding time to smile for the camera of all the media men waiting at the gates.
The whole ordeal was a life-changing one. We were really blessed to come out of a crash unscratched and alive and to call ourselves survivors. There were more questions than answers as of this time as to what really happened. Some people said that 3 seconds before the plane touched the ground there was a sudden heavy rain and wind that made the plane swerve. Some said there was a power outage just before the plane landed.
Still some said that they saw one of the engines burning even before we landed, while others shared that our engine barely whizzed by one of the metal markers as we were reeling down the runway. It would’ve blown the engine away and written a different ending to this story.
For all these extreme experiences, one thing stuck in my mind the most. As we were tumbled left and right, front and back on the runway, with virtually no control over our own fates, it was Jesus’ Name that was called upon by all the passengers. And it was the sincerest and sweetest “Thank You Lord” that was uttered the moment the plane came to rest.
To all the 165 passengers of Cebu Pacific Air Flight 5J 971: We did it! - Rappler.com
The author is one of the 165 passengers aboard the Cebu Pacific Manila-Davao flight that skidded off the airport runway on Sunday, June 2.