Andrew Pantazi and Dan Scanlan and David Bauerlein and Scott Butler and Teresa Stepzinski
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville
Passengers were recovering Saturday from their harrowing plane trip that took them through lightning storms and ended when their chartered aircraft hurtled past the end of a runway at Naval Air Station Jacksonville and plunged into the St. Johns River.
The partly submerged jet will remain in the river while federal investigators look into what went wrong.
All 136 passengers and seven crew on board the flight from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba survived the crash at about 9:49 p.m. Friday at the military base on Jacksonville’s Westside.
“It’s a miracle,” base commander Capt. Mike Conner said during a briefing after everyone including an infant was rescued from the Boeing 737-800. “We could be talking about a different story.”
Hospital officials said 22 passengers — taken to emergency rooms — were treated and released, although one 3-month-old child was kept overnight at Wolfson Children’s Hospital as a precaution.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent its Go Team to Jacksonville on Saturday to investigate Miami Air International Flight 293. Boeing said it is providing technical assistance in the investigation.
The crash marks the second time in six years a chartered flight from Guantanamo Bay slid off a NAS Jacksonville runway. A mishap in July 2013 did not injure any of the 167 passengers aboard when the plane left the runway while landing and ran into mud.
PHOTOS | Boeing 737 jet skids off runway into St. Johns River
In Friday night’s crash, emergency rescue workers quickly arrived and found some passengers perched on the plane’s wing, awaiting help.
Conner said it appeared the plane’s landing gear is lodged in the river bottom, holding the aircraft in place in about 4 to 6 feet of water. The upper portion of the plane was above the river, so water did not enter the passenger cabin.
“The plane … literally hit the ground and then it bounced,” passenger Cheryl Bormann told CNN. “It was clear the pilot did not have complete control of the plane because it bounced some more, it swerved and tilted left and right. The pilot was trying to control it but couldn’t, and then all of a sudden it smashed into something.”
She said passengers had no idea where they were, but flight crew acted quickly to give directions as passengers helped each other put on life vests and then moved out to the wing for a short raft ride to land.
While all passengers and crew made it safely off the plane, pets that were being flown in a storage compartment remained inside.
Conner said rescuers went into the cargo hold Friday night and again Saturday but saw no pet carriers above the water.
“I learned there were pets on the airplane and my heart immediately sank because I’m a pet owner myself and cannot imagine what the pet owners are going through,” Conner said.
He said he talked with the owners Friday night, understood their concerns and sent the would-be rescuers out again Saturday.
The Boeing jet operated by Miami Air International — chartered by the U.S. Department of Defense — was a “rotator flight” that regularly ferried military personnel, their families and cargo between Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and NAS Jacksonville. A mix of military members and civilians were on the plane.
Flighttrader24, a global flight tracking service, showed the plane departed Norfolk, Va., around 5:30 a.m. Friday and arrived at NAS Jacksonville at 7:21 a.m, then took off about 3 p.m. and arrived in Guantanamo Bay around 5:30 p.m.
The plane was running several hours late when it took off from Cuba for the flight through stormy skies to Jacksonville, and over-ran an east-west runway that ends just short of the St. Johns River. The plane veered off the right side of the runway and hit a low sea wall before plunging into the river, said Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He said skid marks were visible at the end of the runway and on the seawall.
Landsberg said the runway does not have grooves that allow water to flower faster off the runway during heavy rain. He said it is unclear whether that was a factor in the mishap.
Conner, the base commander, said the runway was renovated in 2016 with a design that had more slope from the center to the sides for moving water. He said Navy requirements do not include grooves so that was not part of the work.
The cause of the crash — as well as the experience level of the pilot and crew and most recent servicing of the aircraft — was not immediately known. However, intense lightning and poor visibility were reported accompanying thunderstorms in the area about the time the plane touched down.
Investigators recovered the flight data recorder, which was sent to Washington, D.C., on Saturday afternoon. However, the crew-voice recorder, located in the tail of the plane, is under water and inaccessible for now, Landsberg said.
The NAS Jacksonville airfield is closed until the plane is recovered. Agency officials said one thing they are considering is putting cushions under the aircraft so they can be inflated to raise the plane and pull it of out the river.
Landsberg said the agency sent a 16-member team to Jacksonville, but more investigators and aviation experts are on the way. Three main areas investigators are expected to look at for the cause are human error, mechanical failure and weather/runway conditions/ground control.
The plane is a different model of Boeing 737 than the type that was recently grounded worldwide following two deadly crashes.
Passengers were taken to Orange Park Medical Center, Orange Park Medical Center Park West ER, Wolfson Children’s Hospital, Memorial Hospital, UF Health Jacksonville, St. Vincent’s and Baptist Health.
Patients sustained injuries at the severity of whiplash, said Jennifer Chapman, an emergency room physician at Orange Park Medical Center.
The Navy’s on-base fire and rescue personnel were aided by more than 80 Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department workers, plus the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
“We had an amazing amount of cooperation,” Conner said.
He said none of those onboard the plane suffered broken bones.
Officials did not have any estimates on how long it would take to remove the plane from the river. The first order of business involved containing the leaking jet fuel, and then getting it safely off the plane.
We cannot say enough what a great job NAS Fire Department and NAS Command did last night in a very difficult situation and under tough circumstances. Proud to assist you on this call. @NASJax_ @CityofJax pic.twitter.com/eTVDF3cgOW
— MyJFRD (@JFRDJAX) May 4, 2019
The last time an airplane went into the river near the end of the runways at NAS Jacksonville was almost 35 years ago. The Navy Convair C131-F military transport plane had 21 aboard as it had just taken off from NAS — heading to Guantanamo — when it went into the river after an engine caught fire. One person survived that May 1, 1983 crash.
A chartered Delta Airlines jet slid off a NAS Jacksonville runway on July 13, 2013, when it was coming from Guantanamo Bay with 167 passengers. The Boeing 737 was landing while storms were moving through the area, according to a Times-Union report at that time. The plane slid off the runway into mud.
Miami Air International, the operator of the plane that went into the St. Johns River on Friday, is based in Miami-Dade County and flies charter planes around the world. The U.S. Department of Defense, Fortune 500 companies and various professional sports teams — such as the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 — are among its clients, aviation records show.
Under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, Miami Air is contracted by the United States Air Force Air Mobility Command for transporting troops and cargo.
Registered as N732MA, the plane that skidded into the river was brand new when delivered to Miami Air International in April 2001, aviation records show.
The Boeing 737-800 has an excellent safety record, and over 4,000 are flying throughout the world, including about 900 in the United States, according to NTSB data and aviation industry publications.
Aircraft operated by Miami Air International have been involved in three crashes since 1992. No fatalities were reported, but two people were injured in a 1992 incident, according to NTSB data.
In 2012, that aircraft was carrying NASCAR drivers when the plane got stuck in the grass and had to be pulled out at Concord Regional Airport in Concord, N.C., records showed.
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