A charter flight slid off a Florida runway Friday evening and abruptly landed in the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Miami Air International Boeing 737, inbound from the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, skidded around 9:40 p.m., the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department said. At the time, there were 136 passengers and seven crew members aboard, all of whom survived. Twenty-one people were transported to local hospitals, according to the fire department.
In emails obtained by The Washington Post, senior Navy officials were told that all passengers on the plane were housed overnight on cots on at the hospital at the base in Jacksonville. Crew members were planning to get back on the plane Saturday to recover what they could from overhead luggage bins.
A spokesperson at Naval Air Station Jacksonville told The Washington Post that the flight was a regularly operated trip. Coincidentally, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue division had trained its Special Operations team and marine units in protocol for a similar incident earlier Friday.
Local station WTLV reported that several pets — including at least one dog and one cat — remain unaccounted for. The outlet said the animals were kept in the plane’s cargo hold and cannot be reached until the aircraft is removed from the water. The Post has not verified those details.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced Friday that teams had quickly contained any jet fuel from contaminating the river water. The White House also called to offer assistance, Curry said.
Liz Torres, a nearby resident in Orange Park, Fla., told the Florida Times-Union it sounded like a gunshot. She drove to the Target parking lot where first responders were staging after she saw the news alert, she told the Times-Union.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Torres said.
In a statement released early Saturday, Boeing extended its “well wishes to all those involved” and confirmed that the 737-800 charter flight “skidded off a runway at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.”
The plane, a Boeing 737-800, first flew in April 2001 and is the oldest of six aircraft in Miami Air International’s fleet, according to the Aviation Safety Network. It has been leased in several stints to airlines in Europe. While operating a charter flight for NASCAR drivers in 2012, the same plane taxied off a runway in Concord, N.C., and got stuck in mud before takeoff, but was pulled out without suffering major damage.
It was not immediately clear what caused the plane to overshoot the runway, but it landed in a thunderstorm, with lightning nearby and heavy rain on the runway, according to the Weather Network. Boeing has recently come under scrutiny for the safety of their planes following two deadly crashes of the 737 MAX, a newer model.
There is still an ongoing investigation into the cause; officials have not named the pilot or released information about his or her safety record.
Bill Dougherty, a spokesman for Navy Region Southeast, told ABC News the charter flight regularly transports passengers from Guantanamo Bay to Jacksonville and then to Norfolk. Before Friday, the plane last flew from Guantanamo to Jacksonville on April 26, flight records show.
The plane’s passengers included military members and civilians, Capt. Michael Connor, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Jacksonville, said at a news conference. Some passengers were traveling to Florida to see their families, while others were going on to other states, Connor said.
The U.S. Navy operates a base at Guantanamo Bay, on land it leases from the Cuban government. Since 2002, there has been a military prison at the base, where detainees in the U.S. war on terrorism as well as foreign combatants from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been held. Visitors to Guantanamo are required to have a sponsor at the base.
Cheryl Bormann, a criminal defense attorney and passenger on the flight, told CNN’s Don Lemon the plane flew through thunderstorms on the approach to Jacksonville.
“As we went down, we had a really hard landing,” she told Lemon. “And then the plane bounced and screeched and bounced some more … then it came to a complete, like, crash-stop.”
When things calmed down in the cabin, passengers tried to figure out where they had landed. “We were in water,” Bormann said. “We couldn’t tell where we were, whether it was a river or an ocean. There was rain coming down. There was lightning and thunder. And we stood on that wing for a significant period of time. Rescue folks came and eventually someone inflated a life raft that had been on the plane and we began climbing into it. Everybody was helping everybody.”
Some passengers were struggling to get through customs in Jacksonville because they had left their identifying documents on the plane, CNN reported. Bormann told the network that her identification, credit card and other belongings flew behind her seat during the crash.
“Everyone is sort of milling around because no one knows quite what to do. They won’t let us leave,” Bormann told CNN. “Everybody is curious about their belongings and want to know what will happen next.“
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.