Recovery effort ongoing for wreckage in charter plane crash
Published: October 18, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - The fifth day of searching for wreckage from the crash of a charter plane south of St. Thomas on Saturday morning ended with more of the same: no findings.
A private boat with a dive squad and a boat from the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources spent Wednesday combing an area about eight miles south of St. Thomas, where authorities believe a Piper Aztec flown by veteran pilot Kirby Hodge crashed before dawn Saturday.
Rachel Hamilton, Darwin Carr and Valerie Jackson Thompson were passengers on the plane.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter located Thompson in the water about 2 p.m. Saturday, and she continues to recover at Schneider Hospital.
Since then, the search has been fruitless.
The Coast Guard pulled its resources after sunset Monday, and none of the teams have identified any signs of the crash.
However, seas were calmer Wednesday, and visibility improved in what Sea Tow Capt. Alan Wentworth called the best day yet for the recovery effort. Wentworth's private boat, equipped with a side-scan sonar system, is leading the volunteer search.
"We're getting a good image now," he said. "There's just so much area to cover."
The sonar system on the Sea Tow boat sends out sound waves to create images of the sea floor in 400-foot wide swaths. Wentworth said the boat is working in two-mile squares across Hodge's presumed flight path.
Wentworth said a couple of airplanes flying over the area Wednesday reported seeing debris floating on the ocean surface, but divers again returned empty-handed.
"We came up with nothing today, but we'll be back out there tomorrow," he said.
Wentworth said he plans to spend more time today going over Hodge's flight route before resuming the search. He also said he ordered a new side-scan sonar system that is scheduled to be installed tomorrow, so Sea Tow can dedicate two boats to the effort.
"At least we'll have two boats working," he said. "We're trying hard. We're giving it our best shot with what we have."
'A lot of frustration'
Wentworth said he is happy to help and he commends the Coast Guard for "an awesome job," but the lack of a clear plan or clear leadership for the continuing recovery mission is frustrating.
"Every time there's a plane crash, there's always a lead team - where are they?" Wentworth said. "Am I the lead person? Who's in charge? I'm just a guy spending my own money. I'm out there spending thousands. I don't know what's going on."
Wentworth said several practical questions - Who owns the plane? Are insurance companies involved? Do they want the plane salvaged or do they just want the victims removed? Does the Federal Aviation Administration want the plane salvaged? - remain unanswered.
Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. said officials started hearing the call for better search equipment and more assistance from the government on Tuesday.
"That is something that is being reviewed right now," Greaux said.
The government has been in touch with an investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board who will become the lead agent once the aircraft is recovered, he said. "As indicated throughout, the ultimate objective is to locate the aircraft," Greaux said.
Until then, the government intends to continue the public-private partnership of DPNR and Sea Tow, Greaux said.
"There are so many questions and a lot of frustration," Wentworth said. "I'm willing to help, but I need some help from the big guys."
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.