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Tuesday, August 29, 2000

starting on ditched
Hilo aircraft

A missing passenger's body
was found aboard the plane

By Rod Thompson

HILO -- A Federal official today was to begin the process of inspecting the engine and other parts of a plane pulled from the sea just outside Hilo Bay yesterday by Maui helicopter pilot Tom Hauptman.

In a series of flights, Hauptman dragged the sunken tour plane to the surface and hauled it in two pieces to Hilo Airport.

Bob Crispin, National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said he will spend several days going over the engines of the 10-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain. They will then be removed and shipped to the manufacturer for further study.

Divers yesterday also removed the body of Laveta Rose Reynolds, 61, from the plane, which was found upside down in 100 feet of water just outside the entrance to Hilo Bay.

By Rod Thompson, Star-Bulletin
A helicopter and six divers worked to bring a sunken tour plane
ashore near Hilo Bay yesterday. The pilot had to drag the plane
and chose a path through a dozen surfers. From shore, the 10-seat
Piper Navajo Chieftain was taken to Hilo Airport.

The twin-engine plane was on an around-the-island tour starting in Kona when a fire in the right engine and possibly other difficulties forced pilot Nicholas Damis to ditch the plane about 5:30 p.m. Friday.

Damis and seven passengers escaped without serious injuries.

Crispin confirmed that interviews with passengers indicated that Reynolds' life vest inflated while the plane was approaching the water, which would have hampered her escape.

It wasn't clear whether the inflation was deliberate or accidental.

Diver Chris Barboza, one of six from Oahu who assisted in the recovery, said working conditions were not the best. "It was very dirty. Visibility was five feet."

Barboza put the depth at 100 feet. The divers found the plane on their first dive.

Videotapes were made to document the underwater scene, and Fire Department divers then brought Reynolds' body to the surface and transferred her to shore in a boat.

Police put the time of the recovery at 1:45 p.m.

Dozen of observers watching from Milolii Beach Park could see that Hauptman's giant Sikorsky SK-61 helicopter appeared to be having trouble once the plane reached the surface.

Time and again, the Sikorsky pulled the plane partially from the water, apparently to drain it, but the plane sank back into the ocean.

Meeting divers at the airport at the end of the day, Hauptman told them, "I couldn't get the water out of the plane."

Barboza said divers opened the plane's gas tanks to drain them, but they were filled with water which remained inside when the plane reached the surface.

Finally Hauptman dragged the plane through the water toward "Left Point," a portion of the shore that wasn't affected by the strong current flowing from Milolii Stream.

"I just wanted to get it to shore," Hauptman told the divers.

The path he chose was directly through a dozen surfers, who appeared to be paying little attention to the recovery a few hundred yards away.

A small spotter helicopter buzzed them, but surfer Erik Nelson said there was no loudspeaker warning from the chopper.

"They dragged it right though us," said the angry Nelson. "That was wrong."

Even if the surfers had known what was happening, it takes time to swim away, he said.

Hauptman left the plane at the shallow but rocky site and headed back to Hilo. Crispin confirmed he was low on fuel.

On the next attempt to lift the plane, the tail broke. The Sikorsky carried it to the airport.

Next, the lines on the remainder of the plane broke. Finally, lines around the landing gear held, and the plane was carried back to Hilo.

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