General — 09 March 2005 — by Anita Nembhard

The company has issued a press release saying, ?At approximately 5:30 p.m. on March 9, a Cessna Caravan operated by Tropic Air made an emergency landing in the sea shortly before take off from the Belize Municipal Airstrip. The captain and all 13 passengers were taken to the hospital. There were no serious injuries. Several expert witnesses report a dramatic shift in wind direction and wind speed as the aircraft was departing??

Five injured

Four people were rushed by BERT to the Universal Health Services Hospital for treatment: San Pedro residents, Police Constable Jose Castellanos, 22, who was suffering from a blow to his head and was experiencing breathing problems; Jerson Aguilar, whose condition and particulars are currently unknown; Emelda Staine, 38, and her daughter, Idolly Staine, whose condition is also unknown.

BEL?s purchasing and store manager, Ernesto Gomez, 42, was rushed to the Belize Medical Associates, suffering from a dislocated left hand, a fractured foot, and a badly bruised left eye.

Another police officer, Sergeant Irma Anderson of the San Pedro Police Station, reportedly received minor injuries and has returned to the island.

Survivor testimonies

Police Constable #147 Jose Castellanos told Amandala that he heard a ?funny noise? coming from the plane?s engine right after takeoff, and he knew that they were going to crash. He said that a split second later, he saw the pilot lose control of the plane, which suddenly plunged into the water and flipped over as it became partially submerged in the water.

He told the newspaper that he is lucky to be alive today, after being trapped in the copilot?s seat. He said that he struggled to release himself from a complicated seatbelt that he did not know how to operate.

In his hospital bed, Castellanos wore a happy countenance when we spoke to him at the Universal Health Services.

The plane was no higher than 30 to 40 feet when he saw the pilot struggling for control. According to Castellanos, the pilot was having trouble elevating to a higher altitude.

At this moment, he said, he braced himself, overtaken by the feeling that he was going to die. Meanwhile, the other terrified passengers were screaming out.

P.C. Castellanos recalled hitting his head as the plane flipped, causing passengers to be suspended upside down. Impulsively, he struggled to remove his seatbelt. He could not loose his seatbelt, but managed to wiggle himself out, swallowing a lot of water mixed with aviation fuel in the process, he said. He is presently under medical observation, because he had difficulties breathing and will likely be hospitalized until Saturday, March 12.

One other passenger who is also lucky to be alive is Ernesto Gomez, the BEL employee and father of four. He told the newspaper that he feels that the fact that the plane had just taken off and had not picked up a lot of speed is the reason why they survived the impact.

Gomez, who was sitting about two seats behind the pilot, on the left side of the plane, told the newspaper that he heard or saw nothing strange that may have indicated that the plane was experiencing difficulties, until he saw that it wasn?t getting the power it needed to elevate. The aircraft then crashed into the water and flipped over.

Mr. Gomez told us that despite the accident, he plans to continue flying with Tropic Air, as he has confidence in the company, but P.C. Castellanos said he is uncertain whether he would fly Tropic again.

The rescue

Quick responses from a group of men with a skiff in the area, and from the Belize Emergency Response Team (BERT), made it possible for the injured passengers to be rushed to private medical hospitals in Belize City. five of the plane?s thirteen passengers required medical attention immediately.

According to Gomez and Castellanos, some passengers who were trapped inside the plane were able to escape through the broken windows after the impact of the crash shattered them. Those who managed to escape first, helped other injured victims to escape and then helped to carry them onto the skiff, which took them ashore. BERT met the victims there and transported them to the hospitals.

What caused the crash

Amandala visited Tropic Air?s office this morning at the Belize Municipal Airstrip, where we spoke with the Company?s Regional Manager, Amado Badillo, who initially declined an interview. He told us later that Tropic is not certain what caused the crash, but a team of investigators is presently trying to determine the reason.

That team included Brian Dominguez – the Operations Officer responsible for Air Worthiness and Air Safety Investigations at the Department of Civil Aviation, along with Miguel Pacheco, who is trained in aircraft accidents? investigations, said Badillo.

Dominguez, who was at the scene gathering data this morning, said that the possibility of the wind being a contributing factor couldn?t be dismissed, as a plane, in its initial stage of flight, can be tipped over by the wind.

Around the time the unfortunate flight, Tropic?s last flight of the day, was taking off, the first northerly winds of an expected ?cold front? were beginning to gust ferociously from the northeast.

A preliminary report on the team?s findings is expected within 4 to 5 days and a thorough report could take 5 months to compile, Badillo said.

Proehl had been flying for over 25 years, said Badillo.

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