MANILA (UPDATE) - Amid the danger from burning parts of the C-130 wreckage and the explosion of ammunition, paramilitary personnel Madzkur Isa Sahibbon and some of his companions braved last Sunday's crash site in Sulu to rescue soldiers hurt badly from what is regarded as the country's worst air accident involving a military aircraft.
"Pagbagsak ng eroplano, kahit umaapoy pa, at may mga balang pumuputok, 'di namin yun pinansin, basa't matulungan namin 'yung mga sundalo, kasi naawa ako sa kanila, muntik na silang masunog," Sahibbon told ABS-CBN News on Wednesday.
(When the plane crashed, we did not mind the flames and the exploding ammunitions, for as long as we can help those soldiers, because I really pity them. They were in danger of getting burned as well.)
Speaking by phone from his home in Indanan, Sulu where he was spending his rest day, the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) personnel said the tragic incident that left over 50 dead, mostly his comrades, remains fresh in his memory. Aside from the death of 49 military personnel and three civilians, the plane crash also left 46 soldiers and four civilians injured.
Sahibbon, 37, said he was at the site last Sunday on orders of their commander because of the arriving "visitors." He said he is among those assigned at the Bangkal Detachment in Patikul town.
He had yet to change into his military uniform and was standing by the road when they heard the loud explosion and saw the C-130 plane crash some 20 meters away.
They initially got worried about the house of his fellow CAFGU personnel which they saw was hit by the aircraft. "Takbo kami dun. Pagtakbo namin dun, may nakita na kaming mga sundalo, natalsik sa malayo. 'Yun ang tinulungan namin," he recounted.
(We tried to check the house of our fellow CAFGU. But when we ran to that direction, we found soldiers who were scattered everywhere. We helped them right away.)
Sahibbon said he was able to rescue four soldiers, mostly suffering from fractures. His companions were able to also assist other injured victims and bring them out of the danger zone.
"Yung ibang nakita namin, yung nasusunog na, 'di namin natulungan kasi nasusunog na, malapit sa eroplano," he lamented.
(We can't help anymore those caught by the flames, especially those near the plane's wreckage.)
"May isang nagsabi sa akin, 'Tulong!' Naawa ako sa kaniya kasi andun siya sa loob ng apoy," he added.
(There was one who asked me for help. I really pity him because he was there in the fire.)
"Yung ibang nasusunog, kung matutulungan ko 'yun, tutulungan ko 'yun. Pero 'di ko kaya kasi mainit yung apoy."
(I would have wanted to help those who were caught in the fire. But it's impossible for me because of the flame.)
He said he also found two soldiers who already died, under a coconut tree.
Sahibbon, a Tausug, shared that initially, some of those he rescued were apprehensive when they arrived.
"Akala nila, mga Abu Sayyaf kami. May nagsabi pa dun na isang sundalo, ‘Wag po!’ Sabi ko, ‘Wag kayo matakot, di kami masamang tao. Mga tropa kami. Mga CAFGU kami," he said, noting they didn't have firearms that time.
(They thought we were Abu Sayyaf members. One soldier even said, "Please, don't!" I said, "Don't be afraid, we are not bad people. We are your comrades. We are CAFGUs.)
Sahibbon said they brought the rescued soldiers to the main road and asked passing vehicles, including jeepneys, to take some of them to the Philippine Army's 11th Infantry Division camp. The others were attended to by firemen, soldiers and barangay rescue workers.
The 11th ID, which has jurisdiction over Sahibbon's team, said more than 20 soldiers from the crash were rescued by the first responders thanks to their "aggressive and timely action."
In its Facebook post, the military unit called Sahibbon and his companions "heroes" for their "Herculean rescue".
Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan, Jr., commander of the Western Mindanao Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), expressed his unit's gratitude "to the assistance extended by our brothers and sisters Tausug in Sulu who were among the first responders that rescued several survivors of the air mishap."
“To the survivors and all of us, our brothers and sisters Tausug are our heroes. They risked their own lives to save their fellow Filipinos whom they consider as their protectors from the malefactors,” said Vinluan.
“Their heroic deeds are worthy of praise and recognition. This exemplifies that at times when we, protectors of the people and the state are in trouble, we have the peace-loving people to depend on. Muslims or Christians, we are Filipinos with one flag and one country."
The 11th ID, in a separate Facebook post, quoted Maj. Gen. William Gonzales, commander of the Joint Task Force - Sulu, to have said that "the Tausugs CAA heroes under 5th Special Forces Company stationed nearest to the incident site will be recommended to be recipients of Bronze Cross Medal."
The said medal is the AFP's military decoration "for heroism involving risk of life", said Gonzales.
President Rodrigo Duterte also acknowledged and thanked the residents who were among the first to extend help.
Sahibbon said that while it was scary at the time, "it was important to help our fellowmen, our fellow Filipinos."
Reacting to Duterte and Vinluan's statements, Sahibbon said: "Ipakita namin sa buong Pilipinas (na dito sa) Sulu, 'di lahat masamang tao at Abu Sayyaf. Maipakita rin ang mabuting kalooban sa kapwa natin, kahit hindi ka-tribu namin… Konti na lang Abu Sayyaf ngayon (dito)."
(At least, we are able to show to the entire Philippines that here in Sulu, not all are bad people, not all are members of the Abu Sayyaf. We are able to show the kindness we have toward our fellowmen, even for those who are not part of our tribe... Also, there are only a few remaining Abu Sayyaf here now.)
The father of three young girls recalled he joined the military service in October 2019 so he can contribute in making his home province peaceful. "Makatulong sa bayan, ganun ang pangarap ko para matahimik na ang Sulu. Wala nang gulo-gulo, wala nang Abu Sayyaf… Ngayon, konti na lang sila," he said.
(To help the country, that is my dream, and for Sulu to be peaceful, no more violence, no more Abu Sayyaf... Now, there's just a few of them.)
Sahibbon prays that all those who died from the C-130 crash "will be blessed by Allah in heaven", and hopes that the cause of the accident will be determined soon.
Air Force investigators have started their probe, with Philippine officials asking help from the United States in checking the content of the ill-fated plane's blackbox.
"Ganiyan talaga buhay ng sundalo. 'Di natin alam hanggang kalian tayo dito sa mundong ito," Sahibbon said.
(That's a soldier's life. We don't know when it ends.)