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Recording reveals pilots' efforts before Fla. medical plane crash

Officials still classified the search for two of the victims as a rescue mission, holding on to the possibility that someone could have survived

Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. —They were in the air for six minutes.

The twin-engine Learjet 35 took off from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Tuesday night. The four people on board — two pilots, a doctor and a nurse — were headed for Cozumel after successfully bringing a patient from Costa Rica to South Florida for emergency medical treatment.

Under normal circumstances, the flight would have taken less than 90 minutes.

But about three minutes into the flight, one of the pilots sent a radio transmission to the control tower of the airport they'd just left: "We have an engine failure."

The final transmissions from the doomed flight were posted on LiveATC.net, a website that provides air traffic-control communications.

The air traffic controller initially told him to climb to 4,000 feet and start turning back toward the airport.

"It's not possible," the pilot said. The plane never got above 1,800 feet, according to a preliminary estimate from the National Transportation Safety Board.

"We're gonna do a 180, and we're gonna…" the pilot said before his transmission cut off without explanation. The pause lasted a few moments. Then the pilot got back on the radio. "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!"

What the pilot said next is not clear, but he was able to acknowledge more advice from air traffic control. Then there was silence from the plane.

"Can you make it to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport?" the air traffic controller asked. There was no answer. "Can you see Fort Lauderdale Airport?" The plane was eight miles away from its departure point.

The search for the wreckage began when it went down at about 8:02 p.m., six minutes after takeoff, according to the safety board. Debris was found at 8:45 p.m. Tuesday, in 60 feet of water about a mile east of the Fort Lauderdale shore.

Two bodies were recovered Tuesday night, a man and a woman. The only woman on board was Mariana Gonzalez Isunza, a nurse who had worked for AirEvac International for two and a half years.

Officials did not identify the other body. The pilots were Jose Hiram Galvan de la O and Josue Buendia Moreno.

The other passenger was Dr. Fernando Senties Nieto, who had just started working for AirEvac this month, according to company officials.

All four victims were from Mexico.

AirEvac, a medical air transportation company based in San Diego, has bases in Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Cozumel and Costa Rica.

"We're focusing on the family right now and trying to get positive confirmation," Alberto Carson, AirEvac's director of operations, said Wednesday. "It's difficult right now. Right now we're just thinking about the family and trying to cooperate with authorities and trying to get some answers."

By Wednesday afternoon, the family of Dr. Nieto had flown to Miami. The relatives of the other crew members were expected to arrive in Fort Lauderdale later, Carson said.

Dozens of rescue workers from several agencies, including the Broward Sheriff's Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, joined the search for the two missing persons, using boats, helicopters and search planes. A command center was set up at the Coast Guard Station at John U. Lloyd State Park in Dania Beach.

"South Florida waters are pretty warm. It's survivable and we hope for the best," U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Ryan Doss said Wednesday morning.

Officials still classified it as a rescue mission as of Wednesday night, still holding on to the fading possibility that someone could have survived the crash. Doss said weather conditions offshore were worsening after nightfall, with waves expected to be as high as six feet. The Coast Guard Cutter Paul Clark continued to patrol the waters off Fort Lauderdale beach into the night.

The most imperative mission will be to recover the plane's two engines and as much of the fuselage as possible, National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson said.

"That's the initial concern," he said.

So far, about 1,000 pounds of wreckage debris have been recovered.

Knudson said all aspects of the flight will be scrutinized, including how much weight the plane was carrying, the plane's mechanical history, the pilots' experience and the weather at the time of the accident.

"We start with everything on the table," he said.

He added that the plane's fuel also will be tested for any contamination — if any can be found — as the aircraft reportedly refueled prior to departing. Investigators otherwise will study air traffic control radar data, which would show the plane's last movements.

It was not immediately known if the plane had voice and data recorders — the so-called "black boxes" — which would reveal the conversation between the pilots and the plane's power settings before it crashed.

The pilots worked for Aero JL SA de CV, based in Toluca. AirEvac leased the aircraft from Aero JL, which owned and operated it.

According to his website, Nieto was a board certified family practitioner who specialized in hyperbaric and diving medicine.

On a Facebook page dedicated to Nieto's work, admirers expressed their sorrow. "Your wife and friends will always remember you for your wit and good humor," one friend wrote. "See you in the next life."

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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