Air and sea search underway
Published: October 15, 2012
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One person was rescued, but three others are still missing after a massive two-day search off the south side of St. Thomas following a small plane crash into the sea between St. Croix and St. Thomas shortly after dawn Saturday morning.
A Coast Guard helicopter located Valarie Jackson in the water Saturday afternoon and vectored in a marine unit from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to rescue her.
Still missing are veteran pilot Kirby Hodge and passengers Rachel Hamilton and attorney Darwin Carr following searches by the Coast Guard, DPNR, the V.I. Port Authority and private boats.
When Jackson was spotted, she had been swimming and struggling to stay afloat in the water without a life vest for close to nine hours. She remains hospitalized at Schneider Hospital for observation and for treatment for dehydration.
Jackson's family and friends, including the Educational Complex Class of 1999, mobilized in prayer when the names of the passengers began to spread.
Hodge's twin-engine Piper Aztec aircraft was reported overdue about 7:50 a.m. Saturday, according to Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad.
Hodge had delivered a shipment of The Daily News newspapers to St. Croix and was returning to St. Thomas with the three passengers but did not arrive after more than an hour. He had been making the daily delivery of The Daily News to St. Croix for decades.
The Coast Guard was notified, and a search and rescue mission quickly was launched with local and federal authorities.
Local aircraft flying in the area and the crew of a C-130 Hurricane Hunter, tracking Tropical Storm Rafael on Saturday, sighted a debris field near Sail Rock, just six nautical miles south of St. Thomas, Castrodad said.
Crews searched throughout the night Saturday and continued to search for Hodge, Hamilton and Carr all day Sunday, Castrodad said.
News of the downed aircraft and missing passengers and pilot spread throughout the territory and social networking sites like wildfire Saturday morning and early afternoon. As quickly as the confirmed report spread, rumors began circulating as hopeful family and friends feared the worst but hoped for the best.
From as early as 11 a.m. Saturday, family and friends set up prayer vigils, prayer chains and circulated prayers via text messaging.
Many residents on both islands said they could almost set their watches by the sound of Hodge's aircraft breaking the silence in the early morning air between 4:30 and 5 a.m. each day.
Hodge is a well-known businessman from the island of Anguilla who owns Rainbow International Airlines, which has been responsible for air evacuation in the region for years. He also has been responsible for transporting The Daily News between the islands for decades and is considered a skilled pilot.
Still missing is Rachel Hamilton, a member of St. Croix Central High School Class of 1993, and on Saturday, the class organized a prayer chain asking friends and relatives and fellow classmates to keep prayers going around the clock for Hamilton and the others. Friends and family have posted many messages on her Facebook page.
Carlyn Bideau said she and Hamilton grew up in William's Delight and were like sisters. It is difficult to embrace the reality of the situation, she said.
"We have been praying nonstop since that first call, and we have to keep hope," Bideau said. "Rachel is a gem, and she is strong, and I pray God's protection over her so we and our families can create many more memories together."
Ramona Hamilton, Rachel's mother, said the outpouring of support for the family from the community has strengthened her. Visitors and well-wishers have flooded her home since early on Saturday.
Ramona Hamilton said her daughter was traveling through St. Thomas to Tortola where her children had gone to a church conference for the weekend. The children returned to St. Croix on Sunday to the news that their mother is missing.
Also among the missing is Darwin Carr who has a law firm, Carr and Associates, in Christiansted, and is a former assistant attorney general. He loves boating and golfs often on St. Thomas, according to his friend John Benjamin.
"Carr loved going to St. Thomas and flew with Kirby all the time," he said
Benjamin said he still has hope that Carr is alive and is looking forward to getting a call with good news.
"He loves the water; we usually go diving and fishing together," Benjamin said. "I believe that all will be well with him and the others."
Benjamin said he has contacted Carr's family in Germany, New Mexico and Virginia.
Involved in the Coast Guard's search efforts are the Coast Guard Cutter Sapelo, MH-65 Dolphin helicopters, a Coast Guard Auxiliary fixed-wing aircraft, a Coast Guard 25-foot response boat, an HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft deployed from Miami on Saturday night and a C-130 aircraft deployed early on Sunday from Florida.
"We have been organizing a very precise search based on the information that we have and our trained expertise," Castrodad said.
A number of citizen boats and aircraft have launched individual search efforts in attempts to increase the chances of finding survivors, Castrodad said.
The Coast Guard appreciates all assistance; however, the agency is asking that everyone going out contact them via radio or telephone to notify them of their locations as they search, he said.
Captain Drew Pearson, Coast Guard Sector San Juan commander, said the thoughts and prayers of the entire crew go out to the friends and families of the aircraft passengers who still are missing.
"Coast Guard search and rescue crews are aggressively searching for the three remaining passengers and will continue to do so as long as it is safe for our rescue crews to operate in the area," he said.
At this time, there is no information on what may have caused the crash or additional information about the search as the crews concentrate on the search and locating the pilot and two passengers, Castrodad said.
As time passes, the search area is expanding and crews were scheduled to continue to regroup and continue searching into the night on Sunday and into today until the missing are located, he said.