4 survive with baby in rough seas after parachute plane crash

Only two people had life vests and held the baby while in water for an hour until rescuers arrived; video shows the pilot deploying a parachute to bring the plane down due to fuel trouble

By Dan Nakaso
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

OAHU, Hawaii — The survivors of a plane that ditched off Oahu had to hold a baby girl in heaving seas for more than an hour as they awaited rescue Sunday.

The Cessna 172 carrying four people ran out of fuel and disappeared off radar at 6:27 p.m., the Coast Guard said.

The plane hit the water 11 miles due west of Pokai Bay. All four aboard made it safely into the water, but only two had life vests, the Coast Guard said. The child did not have a vest.

A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter arrived on the scene at 7:31 p.m. and within 14 minutes had hoisted everyone aboard.

The helicopter flew them to Barbers Point, where an ambulance was waiting.

Emergency Medical Services reported that paramedics took a 1-year-old girl, 22-year-old woman, 24-year-old man and 37-year-old man to the hospital at 7:50 p.m. in stable condition.

Earlier, at 6:18 p.m., the pilot contacted the air traffic control tower at Honolulu Airport and said he was running out of fuel and would likely have to ditch.

It was the second ditching in Hawaii waters that day.

Lue Morton of Seattle was piloting a single-engine Cirrus SR-22 from Tracy, Calif., to Kahului when he encountered fuel trouble.

A special airframe parachute brought his plane down into 9- to 12-foot seas, where he was picked up by the crew of the cruise ship Veendam, which the Coast Guard diverted to the scene, 253 miles northeast of Maui.

Aboard the Veendam in Lahaina on Monday, Morton refused to talk about what went wrong with the flight.

But a statement from the Flight Academy -- the Seattle company that Morton works for -- said he encountered fuel system problems that had interrupted the flow from the tanks to the engine. Morton tried to fix the problem for several hours before calling for help, according to the news release.

In a freelance video aboard the Veendam in Lahaina, Morton smiled as he embraced a crew member and said he was "glad to be with these guys."

He called the effort to rescue him "more than impressive," adding, "That's all I'm going to say about it."

Eric M.J. van der Wal, captain of the Veendam, said it took four to six minutes for the plane to hit water after Morton deployed the parachute.

"It was like watching a James Bond movie," van der Wal told reporters aboard the ship.

Heavy swells and 28 mph wind made it difficult to pinpoint the plane, but a Coast Guard crew on scene directed the Veendam to Morton, van der Wal said. When the ship was within 200 to 300 yards of Morton, van der Wal dispatched a rescue boat.

The National Transportation Safety Board said its investigators planned to speak to the pilots of both planes by phone Tuesday or Wednesday.

"They will not be traveling to the site," NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said of the investigators. "There is no wreckage to look at."

Both planes sank.

The first plane, owned by Cirrus Design Corp., based in Duluth, Minn., was being delivered to Australia.

The Cirrus SR-22 had just been manufactured. But its airframe parachute technology has been around for 15 years and has been used in 6,000 planes, said Ben Kowalski, vice president of marketing at Cirrus Aircraft.

The Coast Guard released dramatic video of Morton deploying the plane's parachute, which Kowalski said is released from the back and can carry up to 3,600 pounds.

The technology has been deployed 51 times and has saved 104 lives, Kowalski said.

At 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Morton reported that he had about three hours' worth of fuel and would be ditching 230 miles northeast of Maui, according to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard said it coordinated Morton's rescue by trying to get him closer to the Veendam, which the Coast Guard detoured about 90 minutes out of its normal route on a round-trip, 18-day "Circle Hawaii" cruise from San Diego, according to Holland America Line spokeswoman Sally Andrews.

It was the third ocean rescue for Holland America Line this year, following rescues in the Caribbean and Antarctica, Andrews said.

She called three rescues in less than a month "a little unusual."

"But this one went very, very well," Andrews said.

She said Morton's rescue caused a "very minimal" course change for the Veendam. The captain ordered the 719-foot-long ship to increase its speed "slightly" to arrive in Lahaina on schedule Monday morning, Andrews said.

It arrived nearly full -- just 59 passengers shy of its maximum capacity of 1,350 -- along with a crew of 580, Andrews said.


©2015 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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