Survivor describes being shoved out of aircraft as it was sinking

By FIONA STOKES | The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas | Published: October 17, 2012

ST. THOMAS, V.I. — At sunset Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard pulled its resources and ended its search and rescue mission for the pilot and two remaining passengers still missing after a small charter plane crashed in waters south of St. Thomas just before dawn Saturday.

A Coast Guard helicopter located Valerie Jackson Thompson 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 three full days of searches by the Coast Guard, DPNR, St. Thomas Rescue, the V.I. Port Authority and private boaters and pilots.

Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. confirmed Monday night that Thompson told authorities that the flight aboard the Piper Aztec N-5553Y had appeared to be a normal one with just minor turbulence along the way until she felt the aircraft hit the sea.

When the plane hit the water, the aircraft was intact, Greaux said.

Hodge was seated in the pilot's seat; Carr was in the co-pilot's seat; Hamilton was seated behind Carr; and Thompson was seated behind the pilot.

Thompson said the plane quickly began taking on water, and because it was dark, she did not know who was close to her but one of the men pushed her from the aircraft, according to Greaux. Thompson said she is not sure what happened to the others after that because the plane was sinking fast, Greaux said.

When Thompson was spotted, she had been swimming and struggling to stay afloat in the water without a life vest for close to nine hours.

Based on Thompson's reports to authorities, she had been in the water wearing a blue shirt and saw planes flying over and heard boats nearby but none of the search vessels saw her.

By the time the Coast Guard cutter took notice of her in the water, she was only yards away from a DPNR search crew that was on the water, Greaux said.

"The response time from when she was spotted to when we were able to get her out was very short because they were so close to her," Greaux said. "The seas were really rough, making it difficult to see much out there."

Greaux said getting information from Thompson took some time, but even with the initial reports that she could not confirm that the others got out, the objective of the mission was to consider the possibility of their survival and continue the search and rescue efforts.

Thompson remains hospitalized at Schneider Hospital in good condition but is under observation after being in the water for such a long time.

Greaux said Monday night that with the Coast Guard suspending its search Monday evening, the local authorities, as well as private entities, have shifted the mission from rescue to recovery mode.

"There is a lot of interest from the community to assist in whatever way possible, and we are going to continue so we can help to bring some closure," he said.

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. After the plane did not arrive more than an hour after it should have, aircraft rescue firefighters realized he was overdue. He had been making the daily delivery of The Daily News to St. Croix for decades.

Searchers reported finding a bundle of The Avis newspapers about 3 miles west of Buck Island off of St. Thomas on Sunday afternoon.

Around the territory, residents continued to visit with the families of the missing passengers and pilot, hoping and praying for the best. Many people said they were disappointed that the Coast Guard portion of the search was being called off but rested their faith in the local authorities to bring their loved ones home.

Valencio Jackson, Thompson's father, said Monday that he did not know the process of how long a search could go on, but he wished they could have stayed out longer.

Hamilton's parents, her brother and her children were surrounded by family and friends on Monday, as they had been since early on Saturday. Many sat and talked and shared pictures, while others prayed that searchers would get the insight to look the right place.

"The support has been tremendous," Ramona Hamilton said. "Everybody is being really supportive, but I just want them to bring her home. Just bring her home."

Ramona Hamilton said she is grateful for the many calls from officials across the region. The head of the Parliament in Dominica and V.I. Gov. John deJongh Jr. personally called to relay their best regards.

The crash and the fate of those on board continued to be a primary topic in Internet chat rooms and on social media sites as discussion focused on the possibility of the passengers and pilot's survival.

Support for Hodge's safe return also spans across the region, with many from the aviation community sending out prayers and best wishes.

Greaux said authorities were able to sit with many of Hodge's fellow pilots and friends on Monday to look at Hodge's flight path for the last few months. They were able to chart them on an aviation map, and get an indication of where the plane would have been when Hodge last made contact with the Traffic Controller Tower.

Greaux said that as the search and recovery mission continues today VITEMA, DPNR, St. Thomas Rescue and Sea Tow, a local company, will continue their efforts. Sea Tow, which has been assisting with the search since the effort began, deployed a vessel Monday that is equipped with sonar tracking equipment that will help identify objects on the sea floor and may be able to locate the wrecked aircraft, he said.

In the three days of searching, the teams have not identified any actual debris field or oil slick on the ocean's surface, Greaux said.

On Monday, deJongh said the prayers of the people of the Virgin Islands are with the families and loved ones of the three missing passengers of the downed aircraft.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the passengers who remain unaccounted for," he said in a prepared statement. "I am grateful to the local and federal government personnel, the volunteers and the private companies that are aggressively searching for the three missing passengers. Let us continue to pray for the rescue or recovery of these three individuals."

With the mission turning to one of recovery, Eric Weiss, spokesman with the Transportation Security Administration Board, said Monday that his agency has been in contact with officials in the territory since shortly after the crash and an investigation has been launched. If the plane is located, the Transportation Security Administration Board will send one of its on-site investigators to the territory to continue the investigation, he said.

The investigation into the crash is ongoing, and investigators are monitoring the situation, which involves taking witness statements about the incident that occurred before, during and after the crash, Weiss said. That information will not be released until the investigation is complete, he said.

A preliminary report based on the initial investigation will be generated, and if the aircraft is located and a more in-depth investigation is conducted, they will generate additional reports will be generated and the investigation could 12 to 18 months to complete, he said.

The search has included 60 hours of operation, with 26 air and sea missions and has covered more than 4,800 nautical square miles that began in waters west and south west of St. Thomas and stretched all the way to the main island of Puerto Rico, according to search documentation.



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