Monday, October 7, 2013

Plane crashes on Tinian, 3 dead

Star Marianas plane crashes in Tinian jungle; 3 dead, 4 survivors
ALL PHOTOS by MARIANAS VARIETY/alexie villegas zotomayor

Governor Eloy S. Inos and other local officials gather at Agingan Point on Saipan. Photo by Marianas Variety

TINIAN — Three people were killed and four survived a plane crash in the jungles of Mt. Laso early Sunday morning.

This is the second fatal crash following a Nov. 19, 2012 incident on Saipan that claimed the life of a female tourist.

The fatalities in Sunday’s crash were pilot Luis Silva, and two unidentified — one male and one female — tourists from China.

Silva, who was in his late 40s or early 50s, was a former Freedom Air pilot and was described as “very experienced.”

The four survivors, also Chinese tourists, were flown to the Commonwealth Health Center a little past noon.

The plane was a Piper Cherokee 6 PA-32 belonging to Star Marianas and the reason for the crash has yet to be determined.

CNMI and federal authorities set up a unified command post at the Puntan Agingan early yesterday morning and held a media conference at around 10:30 a.m. to announce details concerning what was then described as a missing aircraft carrying six passengers and a pilot that left Tinian at 2:40 a.m. yesterday.

“All we know is that there is a report of an overdue plane. That is what we are trying to validate,” Special Assistant for Homeland Security and Emergency Management Marvin K. Seman said in the media conference.

He was joined by Gov. Eloy S. Inos, Lt. Gov. Jude U. Hofschneider, Commonwealth Ports Authority Executive Director Maryann Lizama, Francisco C. Ada. Saipan International Airport manager Edward B. Mendiola, DPS Commissioner James Deleon Guerrero, Marianas Visitors Authority Managing Director Perry Tenorio, Press Secretary Angel Demapan, the governor’s legal counsel Teresa Kim-Tenorio, American Red Cross-NMI chapter executive director John Hirsh.

While the press conference was going on, Variety learned that a report was received that the crash site had been found on Tinian where three U.S. Navy helicopters had been dispatched.

As the command post was relocating to Sugar Dock, Seman, Inos, Hofschneider, Lizama and other officials, flew to Tinian immediately.

Seman said they received information sometime around 10:30 a.m. that a helicopter had spotted the crash site on Mt. Laso here on Tnian.

The four survivors were airlifted to Saipan immediately.

Seman said a little after 11 a.m. they received a call that the bodies of the pilot and the passengers were found in the wreckage on Mt. Laso.

“We discovered the three [fatalities] 30 minutes after the initial call,” said Seman.

Search and rescue
As soon as notice was received that an aircraft with six passengers and the pilot was missing, the unified command consisting of federal and local responders began search-and-rescue operations.

Vessels from CPA Harbor Patrol, DPS Fire and Rescue Boating Safety and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Assateague conducted a search by water while helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Two Five searched by air.

Seman said the plane left Tinian at 2:40 a.m. and was bound for Saipan. The flight usually takes 8 minutes.

“We got the call at roughly 4 a.m. about an overdue flight,” Seman said.

The wreckage was scattered around, he added, referring to the scene at the site which is about a 5-minute drive from 8th Avenue or east of the International Broadcasting Bureau.

As of the 3 p.m., Seman said they had yet to identify the bodies pending the arrival of Federal Bureau of Investigation personnel.
The crash site is an area covered with thick foliage and local and federal responding units used a bulldozer to clear a path to the site.

“It is really thick in there,” said Seman. “It wasn’t a pleasing site.”

Tinian Mayor Ramon M. Dela Cruz said the three fatalities included the pilot, adding that parts of the airplane were scattered about.

“There were two bodies trapped under the engine — the pilot and one female passenger. The other fatality — a male —was found outside the plane on the ground,” he said, adding that the site was “gruesome.”

Seman said the aircraft probably tried to make an emergency landing and hit the trees.

Other sources who declined to be named said that the pilot had complained about his schedule.

“It could be a case of fatigue,” sources said.

The pilot’s girlfriend Lorraine, who was at the crash site at around 2:30 p.m. yesterday, said her boyfriend did not have a heart condition.

Another source who knew Silva said the pilot was in “good shape.”

But Variety learned from other sources on Tinian that the pilot had figured in a minor incident on the runway. On Saturday, just as his plane was taxiing the runway en route to Saipan, the aircraft hit a ditch.

Variety was also told that, while the plane was hovering near the Voice of America transmitter, Silva called the tower on Saipan to check the weather. This was the last message heard from the pilot.

Extricating the bodies

As of 4:30 p.m., the bodies remained at the crash site as the FBI and DPS continued the investigation.

Seman said the crash was an “isolated event.”

Close to a year ago, another Star Marianas Air Piper Cherokee Six PA-32 crashed on Saipan.

Then, the aircraft was piloted by Jae Choi who sustained injuries and was medevacked to the Philippines for further treatment.

His passengers were one Filipino and four Chinese, one of whom died.

Prior to this crash, the last aircraft accident to occurr was on Aug. 11, 2006 involving Taga Air’s Piper PA-32-300 aircraft but all seven people on board survived.

Stable condition

The four passengers who survived the plane crash were in stable condition, according to the Commonwealth Health Center yesterday afternoon.

CHC emergency preparedness coordinator Warren Villagomez said in a press briefing at the hospital that they received the first call about the incident at 5:45 a.m., Sunday.

CHC was placed under a “Code D,” or Code Disaster, alert at 8:45 a.m. and the first two victims arrived in the hospital’s emergency room at 12:43 p.m., followed by two other victims at 12:44 p.m.

Villagomez said the victims were tourists. After the press briefing, members of the media were led to a room where the victims’ families and friends from China were being assisted by the American Red Cross-NMI chapter. None wanted to make comment.

The emergency room physician, Dr. Marty Rohringer, said the three adults were “in critical but stable condition,” while the child was in “serious but stable condition.”

CHC chief executive officer Esther L. Muna did not want to release more information about the survivors because their families had not been notified yet. Variety was told by sources that the child was three years old while the other passengers are in their 20s or 30s.

Variety also learned from sources that the first two victims who arrived at the hospital were a man and a woman followed, a minute later, by another woman and a child.

Rohringer said the patients were conscious when they were brought in.

“We had an excellent response to the Code D calls so all surgeons, anesthesiologists and staff came to assist,” he added. “So there was no manpower shortage at all. We acted promptly. We were actually standing in the hallway as the patients arrived.”

He said two of the adult patients required emergency surgery while the third adult “may or may not” need surgery, as the ER staffers had stabilized the patient very well “so the patient may not need to go to the OR although we thought the patient might initially.”

Villagomez said the response was a well-coordinated effort, adding that their previous disaster preparedness training and exercises had paid off.

“I thank everyone who was part of the response effort,” he added.

All the needed doctors and nurses were mobilized immediately, he said as he also acknowledged the assistance provided by the Red Cross led by John Hirsh.

“We have family members of the victims here and we are providing everything that we can to calm them and mitigate the situation,” Villagomez said.

Hirsh said the Red Cross has a long history of working very closely with CHC, “and we value that partnership that really played out today.”

He said there were a lot of volunteers who came to the hospital to comfort the families and friends of the victims.

Muna said they assured the families and friends of the victims that the survivors were provided with the best care from a medical team that was quick to respond.

In a media release yesterday, Tinian Transportation Management Solutions Inc., which is doing business as Star Marianas, said:

“The company is very sorry about this tragic loss. We are doing everything possible to assist the victims and their families.

“We are also cooperating with [federal authorities] in investigating the cause of the accident and we are not at liberty to discuss the specifics of the accident at this time.

“We want to thank DPS, CPA, U.S. Coast Guard, CHC, THC, Red Cross and other rescue and response personnel.

“[T]he notifications to the families in China have not been made at this time. Therefore, we are unable to provide a list of the passengers.”

Still in the jungle

As of 7 p.m. Sunday, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Public Safety personnel were still at the crash site in the jungle.

At 4 p.m., authorities brought out the first body while federal and local authorities were extracting the remaining two bodies from the airplane.

From the main road, where the command post was set up, authorities had to create an access road by using a bulldozer to clear the vegetation. From there, one had to walk for 10 to 15 minutes to reach the main crash site.

“We have been up since 4 a.m., and we had to use a bulldozer to clear the area to help federal and local authorities reach the site,” Office of CNMI Homeland Security and Emergency Management acting special assistant Marvin Seman told Variety.

Before lunch time, a boat from DPS boating safety office ferried the department’s crime scene technicians from Sugar Dock to Tinian following the discovery of the bodies and the airlift of the four survivors by a U.S. Navy helicopter to the Commonwealth Health Center

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