Miami-Dade County

Searchers recover the fourth victim from midair collision over the Everglades

Four killed in a midair plane collision over Everglades

Four people were killed Tuesday, July 17, 2018, when two small planes from a Miami-Dade County flight school crashed in midair over the Everglades in West Miami-Dade.
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Four people were killed Tuesday, July 17, 2018, when two small planes from a Miami-Dade County flight school crashed in midair over the Everglades in West Miami-Dade.

The body of a fourth victim of a midair collision between two small aircraft over Florida’s Everglades was retrieved Wednesday, ending the mission to look for survivors. But searchers continued to scour the razor-like sawgrass in hopes of finding clues to help explain what caused the deadly accident.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board will take over the investigation about the causes of the crash and how it happened, said Miami-Dade Detective and spokesman Alvaro Zabaleta. “We’re done.”

Tuesday afternoon, a Piper PA-34 and a Cessna 172, which had both departed from West Kendall’s Miami Executive Airport, somehow crashed in the sky and plummeted to the ground, nine miles west from where they took off. After a frantic search, Miami-Dade police and fire rescue recovered the bodies of Jorge Sanchez, 22, Ralph Knight, 72 and Nisha Sejwal, 19.

About an hour after Wednesday’s recovery effort resumed, police pulled the body of 22-year-old Carlos Alfredo Zanetti Scarpati from the river of grass, not far from where the plane being piloted by Sanchez crashed, according to Zabaleta. Police believe that Scarpati was flying with Sanchez and that Knight and Sejwal were in the other plane together.

Zabaleta said Knight was a subcontracted inspector who worked for the FAA and that Sejwal was on a routine flight check to maintain her certification. Information about Sanchez and Scarpati was not immediately available.

There was no flight plan filed for either plane, according to the FAA. It wasn’t clear Wednesday if the pilots were conducting flying lessons or conducting some type of flight check. According to the FAA, the planes were flying under visual flight rules, meaning the pilots are flying in clear weather and can see where they’re going, rather than relying on instruments.

Though communication with air traffic control is possible if requested, small planes flying in those conditions do not generally receive air traffic guidance, the FAA said.

A licensed private pilot who gave his name only as Mike and who said Knight gave him his flying exam last July said he understood that Sanchez was a flight instructor who was being tested to fly the twin-engine Piper when the crash occurred. He referred to Knight as a “nice, old school pilot” with thousands of hours of flying time.

Investigators couldn’t confirm that Wednesday. And the flight school where the planes originated from wasn’t responding to requests for interviews. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said both planes belonged to Dean International Flight School, based at Miami Executive Airport at 12800 SW 145th Ave. FAA records show there have been 26 accidents or incidents involving aircraft from the flight school since 2007.

Attempts to reach administrators at Dean International Tuesday were rebuffed. Someone hung up on a Miami Herald reporter who called the flight school and another reporter was asked to leave the property.

The planes were flying over air space known as an “Alert Area,” Mike said, a practice area where checks are done or inexperienced pilots learn to fly.

Zabaleta, the Miami-Dade police spokesman, said the swampy Everglades tract where the planes crashed made it particularly difficult for rescuers to search for the victims. He said one of the planes broke into several pieces.

“So, we’re going to have to search for [airplane] parts to be able to piece the puzzle together,” he said.

By Wednesday, family members had flown into town and some were being comforted by victim advocates, Zabaleta said.

Knight’s daughter-in-law, Diedre Knight, said her father-in-law was an experienced pilot who taught his two sons to fly.

“They all grew up around flying,” she said Wednesday morning on her way to the airport to pick up her husband. Her father-in-law was a private pilot who often flew to the Bahamas., she said.

The midair crash Tuesday shut down Tamiami Trail for most of the day as law enforcement from Miami-Dade police, fire rescue, Miccosukee police, the Florida Highway Patrol and National Park Rangers raced to the scene. Nearby airboat operators who set up shop along the trail also scurried into the Everglades to help in the search.

Daniel Miralles, an angler who frequently spends afternoons fishing in canals near the airport, said he looked up just in time to see the planes collide. He managed to record video of some of the 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 crashed in a remote area only reachable by airboat. Several rescue crews boarded private airboats to conduct the search. About a half mile in, rescuers found the first downed plane. Debris was tagged and GPS was used to mark the location. Alvarez said about a half hour later fire rescue began receiving calls about a second downed plane, which led rescuers to believe there might be a midair crash. The second debris field was found about 400 yards away.

At first, information was slow to leak out. Michael Coppo stood outside Dean International on Tuesday waiting to hear about Sanchez, an old friend he said he met in Miami-Dade College’s aviation program. Also there was Julio Sanchez, Jorge’s brother. He said his brother was just short of reaching the required 1,500 flying hours he needed to fly a regional airline.

He said his brother began aviation training in high school, then attended George T. Baker Aviation Technical College in Miami.

Sejwal’s Facebook page say she enrolled in Dean International in September 2017. Facebook posts included the hashtags #aviationforlife and #pilotlife.