After searching since Saturday for survivors of a downed Piper Aztec plane piloted by Kirby Hodge, the U.S. Coast Guard at sunset Monday suspended the search, according to Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad. The plane went down about six nautical miles south of St. Thomas early Saturday morning while on a routine newspaper delivery run.
However, Castrodad said, that if anything turns up, the Coast Guard will renew its search.
The crew of a Planning and Natural Resources Department boat pulled a woman, initially identified as Valerie Jackson, out of the water Saturday afternoon. Government House on Monday identified her as Valerie Jackson Thompson.
U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Castrodad said Monday she wasn’t wearing a life jacket.
“We haven’t found any additional survivors,” Castrodad said late Monday afternoon.
He declined to identify the other two missing people but Government House indicated they were Rachel Hamilton and Darwin Carr.
On Sunday afternoon, a local search team recovered a bundle of St. Croix Avis newspapers about three miles west of Buck Island, Government House said. In the three-day search, teams have not identified an aircraft debris field or an oil slick on the ocean’s surface.
According to Government House, when the plane took off, Carr was in co-pilot’s seat, Hamilton was behind Carr and Thompson was seated behind the pilot.
The flight left Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix at 4:39 a.m. The plane’s last radio contact with the Federal Aviation Administration tower came when the plane was about eight miles out from St. Thomas.
When it became apparent that the flight was overdue, those on St. Thomas waiting for the people on the flight and the newspapers made calls to the FAA tower and to the V.I. Port Authority crash house.
The Port Authority Police called 911 at 7:44 a.m., and a search team that included people from Planning, the Port Authority and the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency began searching waters just to the west of Water Island and southwest of St. Thomas. At about the same time, the Sea Tow company launched one of its vessels to assist in the search.
The Coast Guard then sent out an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter, a 25- foot response boat and a Coast Guard Auxiliary fixed-wing aircraft to search for signs of the downed aircraft and possible survivors.
At about 1:45 p.m. Saturday, a Coast Guard helicopter made visual contact with Thompson. The helicopter guided the local government’s response vessel to her. She was rescued safely and returned to the Crown Bay dock where an ambulance waited to transport her to Roy L. Schneider Hospital for treatment.
According to Government House, the local search team continued until sunset Saturday while the Coast Guard was out throughout both the day and the night. Both continued searching Sunday, with the Coast Guard again working through the night.
The local official and volunteer vessels continued to search with the Coast Guard on Monday, with Sea Tow sending out a vessel outfitted with a sonar tracking device to the area where Hodge was reported to have last radioed the FAA control tower.
Castrodad said since the plane disappeared Saturday, the Coast Guard made 26 searches that covered 4,800 nautical miles that extended from St. Thomas nearly to St. Croix and west past Vieques and Culebra nearly to the Puerto Rico coast.
Eric Weiss, the media contact at the National Transportation Safety Administration, said the agency has opened an investigation.
“We look at man, machine and environment,” he said by phone from his Washington, D.C., office.
The plane’s Federal Aviation Administration certificate was terminated. Roland Herwig, spokesman at the Federal Aviation Administration’s registry office, said there was a sale pending and the paperwork had some problems.
The sale was from Virgin Island Helicopters LLC to CARDAIR Inc. and Herwig said there were some problems with CARDAIR's paperwork. The FAA sent a letter asking for correction but no response was received. Herwig didn’t have the date when the certificate was cancelled. No further information on CARDAIR could be located.
Gov. John deJongh Jr. said the prayers of the people of the Virgin Islands are with the families and loved ones of the three missing passengers of the downed aircraft.
“I am grateful to the local and federal government personnel, the volunteers and the private companies that are aggressively searching for the three missing passengers. Let us continue to pray for the rescue or recovery of these three individuals,” the governor said.