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Tuesday, November 18, 2003



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GARY T. KUBOTA GKUBOTA@STARBULLETIN.COM
From his hospital bed in Maui Memorial Medical Center yesterday, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. William Swears recalled his 3 1/2 --hour ordeal at sea after his plane crashed off Maui.



Thoughts of wife,
kids kept him afloat

William Swears felt sheepish
as his own unit rescued him


WAILUKU >> The crash cracked William Swears' vertebrae, shards of wreckage popped his life raft and sharp edges sliced his fingers and arms as he clung to the remains of his single-engine airplane in 5- to 8-foot seas off Maui.

He looked up Saturday night as search aircraft passed a few times without apparently noticing him.

"I was praying pretty steadily," Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Swears recalled yesterday, lying in a hospital bed at Maui Memorial Medical Center. "I was injured fairly badly."

Swears acknowledged he felt a little nervous until a flare dropped from an aircraft indicated searchers had found him. He spent about 3 1/2 hours in the ocean.

Swears, 43, was flying a home-built plane to San Francisco. He said he suffered a couple of cracked vertebrae in the ditching Saturday night. His left hand, which held onto a piece of floating fiberglass wreckage, was bandaged, and so was his left elbow.

Swears, who expects to stay in the hospital for at least a week, said he also suffered "substantial burns" on the lower part of his legs from fuel floating in the water which "are fairly painful right now."

Swears said he left Oahu about 4:45 p.m. Saturday and had planned to fly his airplane to San Francisco as a fulfillment of a dream, like "climbing Mount Everest."

Swears said he was about 175 miles north of Maui when he noticed his oil pressure dropping and turned toward the Valley Isle as the nearest landfall. He said the airplane, a Cozy III bought from a Michigan friend, flew for 30 minutes before his engine failed, and he ditched the airplane along the same route that he had issued a distress call.

Two National Guard F-15 jets, a Coast Guard C-130 airplane and an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter were sent to search for him.

The Coast Guard said Swears, who had flown helicopter rescues out of Oahu, did a good job of making himself as visible as possible by remaining near his airplane and having a strobe light and emergency locator transmitter on him.

"If you have some things like that, it really makes it a whole lot easier," said Coast Guard Lt. Mike Rogan.

Rogan said Swears' emergency landing without moonlight and traveling more than 90 miles an hour was "pretty miraculous."

Swears said he got the airplane as level as possible and slowed it as much as he could.

He said the landing was "fairly violent," and although he is not certain because the ditching was at night, the aircraft seemed to break in half, or at least a large chunk came off and the canopy was gone.

He remembered grabbing his survival raft and getting into it.

He said the scene was lit by stars. He was near the aircraft wreckage and trying to reach for something when the raft "popped" from shards of fiberglass floating in the water, he said.

"I found myself without a raft, so I got back into the airplane and proceeded to wait," he said.

He said he was injured so badly he really was not sure what part of the aircraft he was on as he sat waiting. "I wasn't that aware of what was going on."

Swears said he later learned from his wife that he was sitting and holding onto wreckage of the cockpit.

"There wasn't enough of it left to stay in it reliably," he said. "I kept getting washed out, so I'd swim around and get back in again."

(Nat Puffer, designer of the Cozy III's airframe, said the home-built plane's construction of foam and fiberglass makes it lightweight and floatable. "It would just pancake in the water and float," Puffer said.)

Swears said he saw the first rescue aircraft after being in the water for about 45 minutes.

"I don't think they saw me," he said. "I was grateful that they were there, but for a little while, I was concerned they weren't going to find me."

The Coast Guard said they received Swears' distress call from the plane's radio at 9 p.m., and a C-130 spotted the airplane wreckage about 94 miles north of Maui at 12:24 a.m. Sunday.

Three minutes later a helicopter crew found Swears, the Coast Guard said.

Swears said he was grateful to be rescued but a little embarrassed to have been rescued by his own Coast Guard unit, including those he trained.

"I don't think I've ever felt as much joy or gratitude as when (Coast Guard water rescuer) Scott Gordon grabbed me and said, 'It's a hell of a way to start your retirement,'" Swears said.

Swears said he planned to retire from the Coast Guard on Feb. 1 but now might be in longer until the injuries heal.

His wife, Kateri, stood in the hospital hallway quietly as the news media interviewed her husband.

Kateri Swears, who was near Seattle and flew in Sunday, said she became worried when her husband did not call her as planned during his trip at 9:30 p.m. Hawaii time.

Kateri, who has a 4-year-old daughter, Alexa, and is expecting a son in February, said she received a call at 1:30 a.m. Sunday saying he had been picked up in the water and was being brought to Maui.

Swears said he prayed he would be able to seek his wife and children, and when he saw his wife on Maui, "what I said was 'I love you.'"

Swears said he does not plan to make a Hawaii-San Francisco flight on the same type of aircraft again.

"I never intended to do it more than once," he said. "I did everything I could to set up the odds in my favor, and when it didn't work, maybe somebody was telling me something."

Swears said he does not know what caused the engine to fail, and he had flown the airplane long distances -- from Michigan to Kodiak, Alaska, and from Kodiak to Tacoma, Wash.

"It's just one of the risks you take when you play the game with a single-engine aircraft," he said.

Swears, who spent seven years in the Army and 14 years in the Coast Guard, said he plans to retire in Alaska and finish a half-written novel. He said he has written about 30 short stories.

Asked if he planned to incorporate his crash into his novel, Swears said not now.

"I'm a little to close to it at this time," he said.


Star-Bulletin reporter Leila Fujimori contributed to this report.

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