Hawaii: Five safe after Cessna ditches off Big Island

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Posted on: Saturday, May 19, 2001 Five safe after Cessna ditches off Big Island

By Timothy Hurley Advertiser Staff Writer

Les Silva heard a plane sputtering and its engines completely shut off shortly before the aircraft set down in the ocean about 100 yards off Pa'auilo on the Big Island's Hamakua coast yesterday morning.

Silva said he was talking to his cousin outside his 'O'okala home when they heard the Mokulele Flight Service tour plane. He said they watched as the Cessna 337 Skymaster with five people aboard maneuvered for an ocean landing, slowly descending and gradually leveling off until the plane ducked behind distant trees along the coastline.

"We couldn't believe it was happening,'' Silva said.

The four passengers and the pilot suffered cuts and bruises but were otherwise safe when plucked from the ocean by a Hawai'i County Fire Department helicopter after the 8:15 a.m. crash. They were taken to North Hawai'i Community Hospital in Waimea.

The passengers were Marcos Greca, 30, and his wife, Adriane, 27, of Araucaias, Brazil, and Joseph Varnadore, 39, and his wife, Ruth, 36, of San Leandro, Calif. Two of the passengers, including Joseph Varnadore, were expected to be hospitalized overnight.

Speaking from his hospital bed, Varnadore said he was not ready to talk about the crash landing. "All I want to do now is sleep," he said.

The pilot is Mike Lauro, 47, of Kona. Lauro has been with Mokulele Flight Service for eight months and is the company's flight instructor, said Mokulele owner Kawehi Inaba.

Mokulele Flight Service formed in 1996 as a flight instruction school and began offering tours a year later. Inaba said yesterday's incident was the company's first emergency.

Inaba said she was relieved that no one was seriously injured.

"We have had to see our other tour air friends endure so much more with deaths and so forth. We feel very blessed," she said.

The plane left Kona's International Airport at Keahole about 7 a.m. for a two-hour tour of the Big Island. But the plane apparently ran into trouble over the Hamakua Coast, sending out an emergency call at about 8:15 a.m.

The Waiakea Fire/Rescue Station dispatched a rescue helicopter at 8:25 a.m. A passing tour helicopter operated by Blue Hawaiian Helicopters spotted the crash scene and hovered overhead to help the county rescue unit quickly find the site.

Fire Capt. Ted van Gelder said five people in yellow life vests were found floating about 100 yards offshore from the closed Pa'auilo Mill. The Cessna was submerged in about 80 to 100 feet of water, he said.

"They were very calm for what they had just gone through," van Gelder said. "They had been prepped pretty well by the pilot."

Les Silva points towards the sea where he and his cousin saw the Mokulele Flight Services aircraft crash into the water. They were the first to call 911. Tim Wright Special to The Honolulu Advertiser Van Gelder and another rescuer jumped into the water and helped two of the passengers into a net suspended from the helicopter. After depositing the pair on shore, the helicopter crew went back out to retrieve the second couple, then the pilot and the two firefighters.

The pilot indicated the plane had lost power, van Gelder said, and he was forced to make a quick decision to risk a water landing rather than trying to touch down on dry land.

"The pilot made a good landing. Everyone just had superficial injuries," van Gelder said.

Inaba called Lauro a "great pilot" and said he followed company emergency procedures.

"He went ahead and gave the passengers the safety briefing," Inaba said. "He's our trainer and basically he followed the company's policies and got our passengers out safely."

Two Federal Aviation Administration investigators were dispatched to the Big Island yesterday to conduct an investigation for the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency charged with determining the cause of the accident.

Van Gelder said yesterday's calm seas and clear skies were perfect for a safe and speedy rescue once the helicopter arrived after a 21-minute flight to the crash scene.

Firefighters dropped a Global Positioning System device over the submerged plane for possible recovery later.

Silva, the eyewitness from ''okala, said at first he wasn't sure if the pilot was in trouble or doing some type of special maneuver, so he waited to see if the plane would return to the sky. After a few minutes he called 911.

Silva said it appeared the pilot was in control.

"You could tell he didn't panic. In my eyes, he did (the landing) in a real professional way,'' he said.

This is the second plane crash in the ocean off the Big Island in the past year. On Aug. 25, a twin-engine sightseeing plane belonging to Big Island Air crashed in the waters just north of Hilo, killing one passenger. The crash occurred after the plane's right engine caught on fire.


-- Carl Jenkins (smewherepress@aol.com), May 20, 2001

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