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.
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