Searchers recover wreckage, bodies of 2 passengers Pilot still missing
Published: October 22, 2012
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. CROIX - What began as a search and rescue mission more than a week ago, ended Saturday when search and recovery crew members located the Piper Aztec aircraft that crashed Oct. 13 in waters south of St. Thomas.
Sunday morning crews were brought in to remove the bodies of Rachel Hamilton and attorney Darwin Carr from the plane that had crashed just before sunrise with Hamilton, Carr, pilot Kirby Hodge and Valerie Jackson Thompson on board.
Hodge remains unaccounted for and Thompson, who was rescued hours after the crash, remains in stable condition at Schneider Hospital.
Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. said that the aircraft was located on the ocean floor, five miles southwest of the King Airport runway, a little more than one mile northeast of where the plane disappeared from the radar screen a week before.
Greaux said DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes made the official calls to notify the families that the two passengers were confirmed dead and the medical examiner will be contacting them to do the official identification of the bodies before an autopsy is conducted later this week.
Family and friends continued to grieve on Sunday, and Hamilton's mother, Ramona Hamilton, said finding the bodies brings a sense of closure for them.
No information has been made available as yet about funeral or memorial services.
Thompson continues to recover at Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas, where families say she continues to be under close observation by her doctors and has been recovering slowly. She initially had been expected to be released after a few days last week, but took a turn for the worse, and is now also struggling after confirmation that her cousin, Hamilton, has been confirmed dead, according to Thompson's father, Valencio Jackson.
Despite Hodge still being missing, Greaux said the recovery mission has been officially suspended, but some consideration has been given by members of his family and the aviation community to do a few more independent missions, including sweeps of the many cays around the island in hopes that his body may have washed up in recent days.
Greaux said that situations such as this do not happen often and there is much to learn for all of the parties involved.
He said an official debriefing meeting will be held later this week that will include the government agencies, private entities and all of the volunteers who were a part of the search, rescue and recovery efforts.
"Through this, we found Capt. Cleo Hodge and the pilots of Ace Flight Center as very valuable resources," he said. "They provided essential information about the how, where, when and what, when it came to the flight information."
Saturday afternoon about 1 p.m. an area of oil sheen was discovered on the ocean's surface, and dive crews entered the water at that location in search for the missing aircraft, according to Greaux. Divers went into more than 100 feet of water and spotted the aircraft.
The aircraft was resting on its roof with one wing-tip separated and the other wing bent under the body of the aircraft; the engines were not separated from the wing.
Though scraped and dented, the fuselage, otherwise, was generally intact.
About four hours after the plane was located, the fuselage was floated and towed by Sea Tow Inc., using an inflatable air bag device. Divers secured the plane's openings and began the slow process of towing the aircraft to St. Thomas to facilitate removal of the bodies and securing the aircraft for investigations into the cause of the crash.
Greaux said recovery crews, including a number of local government agencies, a salvage company and a number of private boat operators had been involved in the search missions.
"At sunrise Sunday, the multi-agency team pulled the craft into a small jetty area and raised it more out of the water near UVI's marine center," Greaux said. "We removed the bodies at that time, and then proceeded to take the plane out of the water."
Neither of the two passengers had been fastened in their seats when they were found, Greaux said.
According to Greaux, a crane had been positioned from Saturday night and was used to lift the aircraft from the water and onto a waiting platform truck where it will remain for processing by the local and federal agencies handling the parallel ongoing investigations.
Eric Weiss, spokesman with the Transportation Security Administration Board, and Ronald Herwig, speaking on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration both have said that their agencies have launched investigations into the crash and will be deploying on-site investigation to the territory once the plane was located.
Greaux said Sunday the agencies are expected to have men on the ground as early as today.
A Coast Guard helicopter had located Thompson in the water around 2 p.m. - nine hours after the crash - and vectored in a marine unit from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to rescue her.
Thompson had been swimming and struggling to stay afloat in the water without out a life vest, according to her statement to authorities.
She said the flight from St. Croix to St. Thomas had appeared to be a normal one with just minor turbulence along the way until she felt the aircraft hit the sea.
She said she felt water rushing into the plane and someone held her and pushed her out of the plane and into the cold dark Caribbean Sea, but she did not believe that the others aboard the plane were able to make it out, because the plane was sinking fast and she never saw anyone again.
Hodge had delivered a shipment of The Daily News newspapers to St. Croix and was returning to St. Thomas about 4:40 a.m. with a shipment of St. Croix Avis newspapers and the three passengers when the plane went down. Searchers found a bundle of The St. Croix Avis newspapers about 3 miles west of Buck Island off St. Thomas the next day.
Hodge is the only occupant of the plane still unaccounted for as of early today.
Greaux said Friday night the search crews had initially been using plotted paths based on Hodge's most probable flight path and the fact that Hodge was located eight miles away from the airport when he last made contact with the St. Thomas tower. Greaux said searchers later received information from the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Florida that gave a more specific location of where the aircraft was when it disappeared from the radar before the crash.
Hodge's plane fell off radar shortly thereafter at 4:57 a.m., more than 17 minutes into the 20 minute flight.
The U.S. Coast Guard led the rescue mission until they suspended the search and pulled their resources after three days. The mission of the remaining crews then shifted to that of recovery and was led by DPNR with the ultimate objective being to locate the aircraft and recover the missing passengers.
Greaux said the private and public multi-agency recovery team has also included: VITEMA; the Office of the Governor; St. Thomas Rescue; the V.I. Port Authority; and Sea Tow Inc. On Saturday, the Medical Examiner's Office and the V.I. Police Department's Forensics Unit joined the recovery efforts which were completed Sunday afternoon.
- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email firstname.lastname@example.org