April 11, ed 2012
Story by Jeff Barabe and Kassi Berg
On Friday April 7th a candlelight vigil was held for the two police officers and pilot who were lost at sea when there plane ditched after a navigational instrument failure. Two days later on Sunday the 9th at 6pm, one week after the plane and its passengers vanished, the formal search was suspended. All that remains of the once vigorous search is the Palau’s Pacific Patrol Boat PSS President H. I Remeliik.
Despite the efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard, Palau Officials, residents and even visiting yachts who searched a grid the size of the state of New Hampshire, no traces of the plane were ever found. Experts familiar with the Cessna 182 have indicated that a water landing at night would be very difficult and would likely result in the plane flipping over and sinking within minutes. As the plane had run out of gas, no oil slick would have remained as an indicator of the crash site.
Also on Friday April 7th, the U.S. Coastguard officially called off its search for the three missing men claiming it is always a hard decision to suspend a search. Their decision was based on the wide area that they covered “under good [weather] conditions” without success, explained Capt. Casey White, Guam Coast Guard Commander.
This tragedy is part of a series of events that began last Friday when a Kayangel fisherman spotted a suspicious vessel nearby. After he and other Kayangel officials were unable to confront the foreign fishing boat, Kayangel state governor Edwin Chiokai notified Palau Fish and Wildlife authorities who arrived at dusk to begin tracking the fishing boats in the early morning.
On Saturday, the Marine Law officers went to Kayangel’s conservation area in an attempt to apprehend the Chinese fishermen and their sea vessel. The fishermen tried to escape, and at one point attempted to ram the police boat. Police fired at the boat’s engines in an attempt to disable the vessel when a bullet reportedly ricocheted off the engine wounding one of the Chinese fishermen in two places. The Chinese fisherman later died of blood loss.
The Cessna airplane was sent to assist in the mission and identified the mother ship north of Kayangel. After being spotted by the plane, the mother ship pulled up anchor and began traveling northwest of Palau, pursued by Palau’s Pacific Patrol Boat Remeliik. Realizing they could not outrun the patrol boat, the crew of the mother ship set their own ship on fire and got into the two smaller support boats. The officers on the Remeliik attempted to put out the fire but were unsuccessful. The ship sank and the crew were arrested and now are being held in the Palau prison.
CLICK HERE FOR A COPY OF THE CRIMINAL COMPLAINT AGAINST THE FISHERMEN
On Sunday April 1st, Palau’s Criminal Investigation Officers Earlee Decherong and Willy Mays Towai and Cessna Pilot Frank Ohlinger went on a 2nd “police mission” to photograph the site where the mother ship sank and thereby destroying all the evidence of what was onboard. OTV was told that this mission was for the purpose of aerial photography of the “debris” and the ashes of the burned mother ship.
The Cessna ABA Sky, Inc. aircraft took off around 3:00p with the the American pilot and two Palauan officers and immediately returned to the airport to repair a malfunctioning GPS. In an interview with the Minister of Justice, OTV learned that the Ministry of Justice offered the pilot a back up GPS to take on the mission, but the pilot declined the offer.
At 3:25p the aircraft departed again with a scheduled return of 5pm. The trip was to take approximately 4o minutes each way. When the aircraft missed the scheduled rendezvous point 175 miles northwest of Palau, Palau’s Remeliik patrol boat made numerous attempts to establish communication. The Palau Aerodrome Flight information Service was able to establish communication, however, attempts to maintain consistent and clear communication was not successful.
It then became clear that the aircraft’s navigation system was not working properly and the pilot was having difficulty in determining the aircraft’s exact position and heading. The pilot declared an emergency or “May Day” just after 8:00 pm on Sunday, April 1, 2012. All possible attempts were made from ground level to provide visual reference for the aircraft after dark when the Public Safety Director ordered all emergency vehicles to drive to the highest points in Koror and turn on their flashing lights. The lights at Asahi ball field were also turned on and Angaur State was notified to turn on as many lights as possible.
Just after 8:00p, the two police officers on board the aircraft were able to contact police personnel on the ground via the Police VHF radio for approximately three minutes prior to their final total loss of communication with the aircraft around 8:15 p.m.
The last transmission by the pilot indicated that they were traveling “north” at an altitude of 6,000 feet at 65 knots. The plane was out of gas and gliding. The plane is assumed to have gone down with no lights visible to aid in the landing.
Immediate assistance was sought from the United States Coast Guard, all available local resources and the visiting Mega-Yacht “The Octopus” owned by Microsoft Co-founder Paul Allen. Coordination and efforts for search and rescue operations began immediately that Sunday night. The Search and Rescue operations were on going on a 24-hour basis with coordination between Palau and the United States through the United Stated Embassy, here in Palau.