Trouble struck almost as soon as the Mexico-bound Learjet lifted off from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
“We have an engine failure,” the pilot of the twin-engine air ambulance reported as he tried to turn the plane around.
He didn’t make it.
Just minutes after takeoff, the private plane plummeted 1,800 feet into the Atlantic Tuesday night and shredded into pieces.
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On Wednesday, with two bodies recovered and two passengers still missing, an investigation began into why the AirEvac International flight fell from the sky.
It’s not yet clear whose bodies have been discovered and who was still missing Wednesday, but the Mexican government has identified the plane’s two pilots as José Hiram Galván de la O and Josué Buendía Moreno, and the two passengers as physician Fernando Senties Nieto and nurse Mariana González Isunza, both of Cozumel.
The plane, registered in Mexico, was leased by AirEvac International, a San Diego “medical evacuation” company that says it provides services to “major resort areas in Latin America.” The company said the plane is owned by AeroJL, a flight school out of Toluca, Mexico, and had recently been inspected.
“There were no prior known mechanical issues recorded on its certificate,” AirEvac director of operations Alberto Carson said in a statement.
A person who answered the phone at AeroJL said the company had no comment about the accident.
As investigators searched for the cause of the accident Wednesday, friends of the victims learned about the crash.
“These were wonderful, wonderful people providing a critical service,” Carson said. “Our medical team dedicated their lives to saving other people.”
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 wrote a blog under his pseudonym, Dr. Chey and worked for the Mexican Social Security Institute hospital in San Miguel de Cozumel until earlier this year.
“He was a good worker, an excellent one, actually,” said Dr. Jesus Mateos, another physician at the hospital.
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.
As for what caused the crash, “I’ve heard people specify the loss of power on one engine,” crash investigator Brian Rayner told reporters Wednesday. “But again, that’s preliminary.”
What was certain as night fell Wednesday is the private plane, its two pilots and two-person medical staff had flown to South Florida Tuesday afternoon from Costa Rica to transport a patient to a Broward medical facility. Then, just before 8 p.m., the plane began the return trip back to Cozumel before reporting malfunctions just three minutes into the flight.
The crash a mile offshore left a floating field of debris some 30-square-miles wide. A massive search-and-rescue mission led by the U.S. Coast Guard recovered the body of a man and woman Tuesday night, but failed to turn up the other two missing crew members more than 24 hours after the plane hit the water.
After dusk, one lone Coast Guard cutter continued to search for the missing passengers. “Until we get evidence otherwise we’re considering it a search and rescue mission,” said Petty Officer Mark Barney.
Michael Dreikorn, an expert witness in aviation matters based out of Southwest Florida, suspects maintenance of the plane may be the cause of the crash.
“This is an old airplane. It was built in ‘79. What we’re likely going to see is maintenance issues,” he said. “Not all inspections are equal. I’ve done a lot of crash investigations where an airplane has just come out of maintenance.”
Dreikorn listened to the back-and-forth between the pilot and air traffic control through an audio file posted on the independent site LiveATC.net and said it’s clear the pilot issued a second “May Day” after first reporting engine problems.
Another possibility: In June, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a bulletin for several Learjet models, including the plane that crashed Tuesday, warning that maintenance personnel was finding cracks in the plane’s control column. The FAA recommended inspecting, replacing and reinforcing parts of the plane.
An actual determination of what happened, however, will be determined by the National Transportation Safety Board and can take one year or more.
“We’ll be looking at everything,” said NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson.
Knudson said the agency’s investigator, Rayner, would focus first on recovering the many splintered pieces of the Learjet, some of which had sunk 60 feet. He said it wasn’t known if the plane had a voice recorder, known as a “black box,” which might add insight into what went wrong.
A preliminary report is issued after 10 days.
The crash was the second fatal small plane incident in a week in South Florida. On Thursday, the pilot of a private plane said his passenger opened the plane door in mid-air before falling to his death in Miami-Dade.
Miami Herald photographers Walt Michot and Charles Trainor Jr., and McClatchy correspondent Tim Johnson in Mexico contributed to this report.