Miami-Dade County

Four killed in a midair plane collision over Everglades

Four people were killed Tuesday afternoon when two small planes from a Miami flight school crashed in midair over the Everglades in West Miami-Dade.

The crash, which the Federal Aviation Administration placed about nine miles west of Miami Executive Airport, 12800 SW 145th Ave., involved a Piper PA-34 and a Cessna 172. Police confirmed three deaths Tuesday and found the fourth body Wednesday morning.

Tuesday night, police identified the first three victims. They are: Jorge Sanchez, 22, Ralph Knight, 72, and Nisha Sejwal, 19.

FAA records say both planes belonged to Dean International, a flight school based at Executive Airport with 26 accidents/incidents since 2007.

“Preliminary information that is coming into our homicide detectives is that the two planes were possibly training, which leads us to believe that you have a pilot and a trainer or trainer and a student, and in another plane a trainer and student,” Miami-Dade police Det. Alvaro Zabaleta said from a rescue area staged at an airboat business off Southwest Eighth Street near the Everglades.

Daniel Miralles, an angler who frequently spends afternoons fishing in canals near the airport, said he looked up in time to see the planes collide and record video of falling debris on his cellphone.

“I heard a weird sound. It sounded like a plane, but it it sounded too close. It sounded like an 18-wheeler going 100 mph down the street,” said Miralles.

The planes came down in a remote area reachable only by airboat. Dozens of emergency vehicles assisting in the rescue efforts gathered at Coopertown Airboat, 227th Avenue and Southwest Eighth Street about a dozen miles northwest of Executive Airport.

“Our crews were actually out here this morning training for incidents just as this,” said Miami-Dade Fire Marine Chief Andy Alvarez.

Alvarez said when crews arrived they boarded their fire rescue airboats and others from private companies willing to help and searched for debris. About a half mile in they found a downed plane. They tagged the debris and marked the GPS location, Alvarez said.

“About that point and time, we started receiving phone calls of a possible second aircraft and a possible explosion in the air, which led us to believe there was a midair collision,“ Alvarez said. Crews, with the help from air rescue, then found the second debris site about 400 yards away.

Zabaleta said several agencies, including Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, Miccosukee police, Florida Highway Patrol and National Park Rangers, were involved in the response.

The federal National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA are investigating.

Rescuers continued to search the two wreckage sites late into the afternoon. The hum of airboats could be heard throughout the evening behind a thick brush between the wreckage site and Southwest Eighth Street, the main drag through the Everglades.

Just before 6 p.m., rescue crews hauled in industrial lighting, suggesting the investigation would last long after the sun set. The area is void of buildings and streetlights and goes pitch black at night.

With little information available Tuesday afternoon, friends and family of pilots at Dean International waited anxiously for information at Executive Airport. Michael Coppo stood outside the flight school awaiting information about Sanchez, an old friend he met in Miami Dade College’s aviation program.

In this 2016 photo, from left to right: Nicholas Spezzo, dean of Academic Affairs & Student Services for Miami Dade College Homestead; Miami Dade College aviation students Jorge Sanchez and Michael Coppo, and two instructors from the School of Aviation. Miami Dade College Foundation via Facebook

Coppo said Sanchez was on a “cross-country trip,” meaning he was traveling 50 nautical miles to another airport with a student and then returning. Coppo said Sanchez left at 9 a.m. and should have been back by 1 p.m., around the time of the crash.

Dean International flight instructor Jorge Sanchez storied a photo on Instagram of him flying over Immokalee, Florida, around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, July 17, 2018. His brother, Julio Sanchez, confirmed Tuesday night this his brother had died in the midair collision of two planes over the Everglades on Tuesday afternoon. Instagram

Coppo used to fly from Dean, but stopped about a year ago. He estimated that he and Sanchez flew 100 hours together before Coppo left the flight school.

Sanchez’s black Ford Mustang, with an “I’d Rather Be Flying” license plate frame, sat in the parking lot outside the school.

His older brother, Julio Sanchez, said Jorge was about four or five months short of reaching the required 1,500 hours flying time a pilot must have by federal law before applying to a regional airline.

“In his mind, he was a pilot the minute he was born,” Sanchez said of his brother.

The younger Sanchez began his aviation training in high school and then at George T. Baker Aviation Technical College, before going on to receive his private, commercial and instructor’s pilot licenses at Miami-Dade College, his brother said. Julio Sanchez, who is also a pilot, said he’ll continue training in honor of his brother.

“He was on his way to accumulating all the hours toward his goal. It was his and my dream, the road map we were both taking,” said Julio, 28. “I was following in his footsteps. And I’ll continue in his honor.”

Another victim, Sejwal, enrolled in Dean International in September 2017, according to her Facebook page.

Her love of flying is evident from her Facebook posts, which include hashtags #aviationforlife and #pilotlife.


Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal and staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.