RECTO L.  MERCENE, veteran photojournalist who covered aviation, defense, Malacanang, Senate and foreign affairs, and who “shot” Ninoy Aquino as he lay at the tarmac on August 21, 1983, has died, his family announced.

The BusinessMirror reporter had been in hospital since September 7, and was being prepared for release from confinement so he can get palliative care at home after doctors detected cancer spreading in his bone marrow.

On Saturday afternoon, however, he died peacefully in his sleep, according to youngest child Danica, who had been caring for him.

Besides Danica, he left behind son Recto II (Jay); grandchildren Yumilka, Zach; and brother Dante. He now joins his wife, Henedina Bella; daughter Mia Grace; brothers Floro, Antonio, Wilberto, and sister Greta.

With his BusinessMirror family

Born May 27, 1944 in Gasan, Marinduque,  Recto shot to fame as a photojournalist at the then Times Journal – one of only three daily broadsheets allowed during the Marcos regime – when he shot a series of “Hail Mary” photos after mediamen were ordered by soldiers to drop to the floor just as shots rang out at the tarmac.

His hand never left the shutter, his camera atop his head, even as he could not see what was going on down at the tarmac, Recto recalled of that moment. But the very dramatic photos that emerged, especially of the then opposition leader’s white-clad body being dragged into a military van, went around the world. His photos were among those submitted to the Agrava fact-finding board tasked by then President Marcos to investigate the assassination.

One of Mercene’s iconic photos of the Ninoy Aquino assassination in 1983

Mercene was an air-traffic controller and private pilot for 18 years before being bitten by the journalism bug.  Forced to choose between his government job and being a reporter, he chose the latter. He told colleagues he never regretted it, because, throughout his rich, illuminating reportage on aviation for decades, his network of friends and sources, not to mention his knowledge in the field, served him in good stead in his job as journalist.

Besides the airport beat, Mercene was often tapped to cover stories in Defense, and produced some excellent reportage on the work and hazards of courageous Air Force pilots tasked to do rescue and humanitarian work during calamities. One such reportage, published in Teddyboy Locsin’s newspaper TODAY, gave a detailed, technical account of how PAF airmen, at great risk to themselves, continued with the race to rescue, at nightfall and despite rains and winds, scores of people stranded on rooftops in Pampanga after lahar flows from monsoon rains swamped their villages. While protocols bar night flights especially in bad weather, the officer in command decided to continue, after estimating that waiting for daybreak would be too late for the shivering folk who must be plucked from rooftops while lahar flows continued to swell. Only someone with Recto’s intimate knowledge of aviation could have described in such precise detail the many difficult maneuvers taken by the courageous soldiers. Shortly after that account was published in TODAY,  then President Fidel V. Ramos handed out medals and recognition to over a dozen men and women who played a role in the heart-stopping drama.

While he liked covering real-life dramas, Recto was a man of great humor, as his Facebook posts indicate. In 2019, he made like an adversary of Jacky Chan, who got a kick in the chin, as he gamely posed at a wax museum. “Hetong bagay sayo!!! me pa-pose pose ka pa k tiger woods,” wrote Recto on his FB caption, giving the martial arts star a make-believe spiel.

Recto added: “I didn’t see dat coming jacky chan breaking thru d door to give me a well deserved kick.”

Getting a flying kick from a wax image of Jacky Chan

Knowledge, passion, empathy

Recto wrote well because he knew his stuff. He wrote with passion, because he deeply appreciated the life and work of people he covered – be they aviation employees from pilots to technical crew to air control personnel; to diplomats in the line of fire in conflict areas; or soldiers doing rescue; or even ordinary employees doing indispensable stuff in airports but are often overlooked or whose pay or benefits get stalled.

As BusinessMirror’s foreign affairs reporter interviewing Mahathir Mohamad

Recto was rushed to Asian Medical Center on Sept 7, after falling at home and bumping his head.

He was confined, with a subarachnoid hemorrhage; and no Covid or pneumonia. But doctors kept him confined because of recurring fever, and some troubling indicators. He underwent a battery of tests, and after two weeks, they finally told his family, his bone marrow tests showed cancer spreading – in advanced stage.

Doctors committed to prepare him for palliative care at home, so he can be rested, be happier in surroundings dear to him, like the bonsai he had carefully nurtured for decades.

However, though he was stable, doctors could not immediately release him from hospital. At3pm Saturday, October 2, Recto passed on, quietly in his sleep. No struggle, no painIn the words of Monty Python which he loved to watch, “He’s passed on, gone to meet his Maker, bereft of life, he rests in peace, pushing up the daisies, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.”

Trying out his sea legs

The man who spent nearly six decades soaring and roaming, in various incarnations of a traveler – first, as private pilot and air traffic controller, then as aviation reporter and photojournalist, and then as diplomatic and foreign affairs reporter – has gone on to the sky with no limits, where air traffic needs no controls and airplanes never have to take off or land. Fly high, idol, legend, role model for young journalists, friend of thousands, and advocate for ordinary folk – you are Philippine journalism’s irreplaceable treasure.

IMAGE CREDITS: Images from Recto Mercene’s Facebook Account

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