Friday, May 22, 2009

Unanswered Questions About Untimely Deaths

Unanswered Questions About an Untimely Death

Perhaps the worst experience one can ever have is to lose a loved one in an untimely death, although death by disease is much better than death by accident. Death by accident is like a thief that comes under cover of darkness, stealing your loved one from you in the least expected moment, when your guard is down and emotions vulnerable.

Such sudden, unexpected deaths usually leave behind grieving relatives who are haunted with nagging questions like “What if..?”, “How can it happen…?” and the most compelling “Why?”.

An example is the sad fate which befell the Presidential chopper which crashed in Ifugao last April 7. Eight lives were lost that day, persons who were serving not just the President but the whole country as well. It was indeed a mournful loss, the grief of the family shared by many others.

I personally knew one of the victims, although not enough to say that I am close. I had many occasions to interact with Usec. Malou Frostrom owing to the nature of our jobs. That’s why when I first heard that she was among the passengers of the ill-fated chopper, I had a reason to give the news a little bit more attention.

The circumstances of the crash gave rise to questions as to how it could have happened considering that the area has a reputation of being inhospitable to flying during the time of the day that it took off. The accident could have been avoided if prudence was exercised, especially that there was a practice among aviators not to fly out of Loakan after 3:00PM.

This practice, which at that time was unclear to the public if it was actually a policy, had a reason to be in place and the nagging question in my mind was “why did the chopper take off and who authorized the flight?” The question was coming from the purpose of reviewing aviation policy and avoiding future accidents.

Media outfits carried the questions that I had as news reports which in turn earned the displeasure of Malacanang. I reacted to the tirade of the Press Secretary through my blog and subsequently delivered a privilege speech to call for an inquiry in the House of Representatives.

The inquiry was also given reason to be conducted even by Ms. Marichu Villanueva, a member of the Malacanang Press Corps, who wrote an article entitled “After Grief, Let Justice Be Served” in the April 24 edition of the Philippine Star. In it, she wrote “This sad incident should have ended there. But apparently there’s still a crying need to hold somebody, or some people accountable for this fatal chopper accident. Such sentiments continuously poured. But whether these sentiments are valid or not, this incident must not be just left to God’s will.”

It is no wonder then that my father, Senator Rodolfo Biazon had the same thing on his mind when he called for an inquiry in the upper chamber. Although we did not coordinate on this, perhaps he countless times that he has mentored me in my job as a legislator has resulted in us thinking along the same lines.

But it seems that our line of thinking---that the accident should be thoroughly looked into in order to get the whole picture of how the accident happened in order to prevent its reoccurrence---is not shared by all, especially Malacanang.

The inquiry in the Senate was already scheduled but the committee was asked by the Senate leadership to postpone indefinitely owing to a request from Malacanang on the grounds that “they are not yet ready.”

In the House of Representatives, the hearing was scheduled to proceed with me as chair of the hearing. While we were preparing for the hearing, the committee staff was contacted by some family members of some of the victims who expressed interest in the inquiry.

At first, I thought they were going to object to the hearing, which seemed to be the line of Malacanang. But I was surprised to be informed that the families wanted the hearing to proceed because they wanted to know the whole truth about how the accident which claimed the lives of their loved ones happened.

One of the staff in the House secretariat was a classmate of one of the crash victims and is close to the family. She told me that the wife of one of the casualties is really distraught, owing to the fact her husband was so dedicated to his job that his time with the family was limited and with his death, he is now forever parted from his wife and children. She is simply at a loss on how to live without him.

The House staff went on to tell me that what was really painful for the wife was that as her husband was leaving that day for the flight, she had asked him to stay and let the team go without him. She pleaded with him twice, but saying that he had a duty to perform, he left to board the chopper. Little did he know that that was the last time he would be talking to his wife.

I also received an email from someone who claimed to be a relative of one of the pilots. He said that he too, wants to know what really happened that fateful day. He said he knew his relative to be a good pilot and not one to taking risks.

Confident with the knowledge that the families themselves are interested in finding out the whole story about the ill-fated flight, I advised the committee secretariat that the hearing will proceed as scheduled.

On the morning of the hearing itself, which was scheduled at 1:30PM that afternoon, I was requested by the Chairman of the Oversight Committee on Dangerous Drugs to stand in for him in a hearing of his committee. I acceded to his request, since the hearing of his committee was scheduled at 10:00AM.

While I was in the Dangerous Drugs Committee hearing, I received a text message from the staff of the Defense Committee, telling me that they needed to talk to me before we start the hearing on the chopper crash. I sensed that there was a problem, but I had a task at hand, so I set it aside for awhile and tried to finish the hearing on time.

Due to extended questions by congressmen, we weren’t able to conclude the hearing on time, so I was late going to the Defense Committee. Before entering the hearing room, I was met by the committee staff who told me that they received a message from Malacanang.

Before he even told me what the message was, I already knew what it was. Malacanang was requesting that the hearing be postponed, since they were “not yet ready”, especially that they had just observed the 40th day of the deaths. The invited guests from the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) and the Presidential Security Group (PSG) were not going to attend.

I was also shown by the committee staff a letter from the Department of Defense informing the committee that the officers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines will not be able to attend the hearing since they were not able to secure permission from the Office of the President. But the AFP sent officers as resource persons for the bill proposing an increase in quarters allowance, since I also included it as part of the agenda for that afternoon’s hearing.

It became apparent that there is an effort to prevent the inquiry into the chopper crash. Even prior to the scheduled hearings in the Senate and the House, there were steps which seemed to be designed to stop the inquiry.

When I delivered my privilege speech on the crash, I moved for the inquiry citing several policy questions which I believed should be answered in order to enhance aviation safety. Although these questions were brought about by the crash of the presidential chopper, the adoption or modification of policies will benefit not just the aviation sector but the public as well.

Normally, privilege speeches are referred to the Committee on Rules in order to determine which committee it will be referred to for action. The one who delivered the speech is invited to explain the purpose of the speech and the action desired by the one who delivered it.

But in the case of my speech, it was taken up and acted on by the Committee on Rules without giving me the opportunity to explain the speech, although it was already clearly stated in my discourse.

The Committee on Rules sent my speech to the archives, even though the speech moved for an inquiry into military and civilian aviation policy and a further motion of referring the speech to the Committee on Defense.

When I came to know about the action on my speech, I decided to raise it as in issue in plenary. But some colleagues, members of the Committee on Rules, offered to just reverse the committee’s action and have it immediately referred to the Committee on Defense. Hence, I was able to schedule the hearing. Sadly, it seems Malacanang is taking steps to prevent it from happening.

After learning from the committee staff the request from Malacanang and the non-appearance of the invited guests from the PMS, PSG and AFP, I peeked inside the hearing room and saw the guests from the private sector, aviation experts and civilian pilots. The families of two of the victims were also there, although they were not officially invited. They came on their own volition, in the desire to learn the truth.

There were also two members of congress there, known close allies of Malacanang. At that point, I had to make a quick decision. Either I push through with the hearing or postpone. If I push through, I already anticipated the possibility of someone questioning the quorum (there was none) which would result in the adjournment of the committee hearing, and waste the time and effort of those who were present. On the other hand, if I postpone, everyone will go home without accomplishing anything.

After a quick consideration, I decided to cut the agenda into two. I would proceed with the hearing on the Quarters Allowance Bill, and just take up the chopper crash as a consultation, which cannot be questioned on the basis of quorum. It would be an activity purely at my discretion as chair. We will still be able to ask questions about the crash minus the possibility of the proceedings being challenged.

I then convened the committee and announced what will happen in the proceedings. The moment that I announced that we were not going to take up the chopper crash in a hearing but rather in a consultation, I noticed the families, who were seated at the back of the hearing room, animatedly talking among themselves looking agitated. A couple of minutes later, they all stood up and walked out of the room.

I immediately instructed my staff to try to catch up to them and explain to them that we will still discuss the matter, only that it will be in a consultation instead of a committee hearing. My staff was able to catch up but when he tried to explain, they did not want to hear any of it.

They were extremely disappointed. They had been waiting for the hearing, even skipping lunch, to find out what they can about the circumstances of their relative’s death. I can understand their frustration. Perhaps they even regard me with displeasure. But I don’t take it against them if they got angry at what happened, although I had all the intention of proceeding with asking questions about the crash. Maybe this is not the first time that their quest for answers were met with a blank wall.

The consultation proceeded in spite of the absence of the victims’ families. The information provided by the resource persons---aviation security experts, air accident investigation experts and pilots---all proved to be important and crucial in understanding the crash. It provided sufficient preliminary information that may be used when we finally conduct the official inquiry into the chopper crash.

What bothers me now is that there seems to be an effort to sweep this issue under the rug and relegate it to a forgotten memory, in spite of the fact that the families themselves are straining to find the truth. In addition, the whole circumstance surrounding the crash should be revealed in order to prevent the recurrence of accidents.

But I have this feeling that the next time I pursue this inquiry, it will once again be met with resistance. If that happens, then maybe I might just have to accept the reality that any effort will be in vain. It just bothers me that the families of the victims themselves are seeking the truth and it appears that I have failed them in their quest.

The truth may never be found out and just remain in the bosom of the cloud-covered mountains of Ifugao. All I can do at this time is offer my prayers for the departed and the families they left behind.


Anonymous said...

Congressman Biazon, something completely unrelated to your post's topic: Is there really a pending "Right of Reply" bill? And if there is, can you explain its "gist" to me? I can't seem to find a good link that explains it all in a cohesive manner.

I do hope you reply. :) thank you!

Ruffy Biazon said...

yes, there is a Right of Reply bill pending in COngress.

Basically, it seeks to make it mandatory for publications, tv and radio programs and even websites to publish, boradcast or post the replies of those who may have been subjects of derogatory articles or commentaries published, broadcast or posted in those media.

Anonymous said...

So for example...I bashed Britney Spears and she read it. And now she sent a reply. That means I have to put it up in my blog? As in post it? Would it mean that I have no right to delete it, whatsoever?

What's your stand on this?

I'm very grateful that you replied. I just came across your blog while researching for my mum in the last elections and I thought you'd be the right person to ask about this. :) Thank you.