Two people died and two are missing in the crash of an air ambulance Learjet that plunged into the ocean off Fort Lauderdale beach Tuesday night five minutes after takeoff.
A massive search-and-rescue effort is continuing Wednesday morning for the remaining missing people aboard the private jet that took off from Fort Lauderdale International Airport on its way back to Cozumel, Mexico, with four people on board.
"We still have a very active search and rescue case going on this morning off the coast of Fort Lauderdale," Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma of the U.S. Coast Guard told reporters Wednesday morning from the Fort Lauderdale station. "We continue at this hour to be fully engaged in a search and resscue effort."
So far, rescuers have recovered 1,000 pounds of debris across a 20-square-mile area.
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About a dozen rescue vessels are on the water Wednesday.
The two dead were located within 500 yards of debris, said Lt. Paul Turner of the Coast Guard, who found the bodies.
"Rescuers have been on scene overnight and continuing to search for survivors in the water," Somma said.
The flight carried two pilots and medical personnel, including a physician tentatively identified by friends as Fernando Senties Nieto and a nurse, Mariana González Isunza, both of Cozumel. Senties’ Facebook page began to fill with condolences early Wednesday.
Senties studied medicine in the capital but was living and working as a family doctor in Cozumel, where he had a specialization in using hyperbaric chambers to treat divers with the bends,according to his Facebook page. He worked for the Social Security Institute of Mexico and wrote a blog under his pseudonym, Dr. Chey.
The doctor was well known in Cozumel. His brother-in-law, Aurelio Omar Joaquin Gonzalez, was mayor of San Miguel de Cozumel, the largest city on the island. His mother, Martha Nieto Cater, is a hotel owner in Cozumel.
González got her nursing degree from the University of Guadalajara in 1997, according to public records.
Mexican media identified the others onboard as pilots José Hiram Galván de la O and Josué Buendía Moreno.
It’s unclear if the pilots were employed by the plane’s last registered owner, AirEvac International. A company spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Mexican-registered Learjet 35 took off shortly before 8 p.m. and crashed about a mile offshore, said Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The crew and medical staff had brought a patient to Broward County and was headed to Mexico when it encountered a mechanical problem. The pilot issued a May Day, reporting that he was in trouble and asking the tower for permission to return to the runway.
The pilot then advised that he would make a 180-degree turn and head back to the airport. Skies were clear and foul weather did not appear to be an issue.
According to www.flightaware.com, which tracks flights, the Learjet had taken off on its doomed final leg at 7:51 p.m. and by 7:55 p.m. the tracking website showed the plane was 100-feet from the ocean and about to crash.
Shortly before 9:30 p.m., rescue workers with the U.S. Coast Guard and Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue recovered two bodies, an adult male and female. The victims were brought back to shore, where a command center was set up at a city marine on Southeast 15th Street. On Wednesday, John U. Lloyd Beach State Park in Dania Beach will serve as the staging area for the rescue effort.
The search of the waters for the two remaining passengers is led by the Coast Guard and includes more than 10 vessels from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue.
Rescue workers reported a large debris field and the Coast Guard asked boaters to avoid the area for safety reasons, and to report any wreckage to the Coast Guard via VHF marine channel 16 or by calling 911.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been notified or the crash of the air ambulance.
The Learjet, with the tail identification of XAUSD, began the day in Cozumel then flew to San Jose, Costa Rica. At 9:30 a.m., it took off with the unidentified patient headed for Fort Lauderdale, where it landed at 1:34 p.m. at SheltAir.
On its website AirEvac says it "serves leading health and travel insurance companies, hospital administrators and third-party medical administration groups." It says its Learjets are ‘’configured as airborne intensive care units specifically for air ambulance transports.”
The crash was the second fatal small plane incident in a week in South Florida. On Thursday, a passenger on a private plane fell or jumped to his death in Miami-Dade after a door opened in midair.
Miami Herald photographer Charles Trainor Jr. and McClatchy correspondent Tim Johnson in Mexico contributed to this report.