Navy divers on Sunday began recovering numerous containers holding the corpses of cats and dogs that drowned in the forward cargo area of the Miami Air International charter flight that slid off a Florida runway and into the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Fla., on Friday evening. Miraculously no one was killed in the crash, but when first responders looked inside the airplane, water had penetrated its cargo space and had risen “several feet” high, making it impossible for anyone to even see the pets, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.
“Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that could be done for the animals at that point. There were no pet containers visible above the water line,” NTSB vice chairman Bruce Landsberg said in an interview. “But I think we’re all thankful because unfortunately, we have way too many examples of similar accidents where there is a loss of human life.”
Barring a second “miracle on the St. Johns,” the pets are presumed dead.
The Miami Air International Boeing 737, inbound from the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, skidded as it came in for a landing at Naval Air Station Jacksonville around 9:40 p.m., the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department said. Everyone on board — 136 passengers and seven crew members — survived without critical injuries. Twenty-one people were transported to hospitals, according to the fire department, but only one was hospitalized — a 3-month-old — as a precaution.
A 16-person rescue team sent by the NTSB investigated the crash site Saturday and recovered the aircraft’s “black box” data recorder. At the time, the plane was still “partially submerged in shallow water and its nose cone was sliced off, apparently from the impact,” the Associated Press reported.
Landsberg told The Washington Post on Sunday that the flight data recorder has been flown back to the NTSB’s Washington office for evaluation. “This is a relatively new airplane and that will make it much easier for us to ascertain what happened,” Landsberg said.
He added that the flight’s second device — the cockpit voice recorder — is submerged underwater and that officials won’t recover the device until the entire plane is removed from the river. “We feel quite confident that we’ll be able to hear what the crew was saying to each other and what they were thinking,” he said.
One aspect of the crash that investigators are analyzing is why the pilots requested a change in their landing direction. Up until its arrival, airplanes at the airport were landing to the west. But the Miami Air International flight’s pilots said they wanted to land to the east. Landsberg said NTSB officials are also determining whether the plane was coming in too fast, but that it would be “inappropriate for me to second guess the pilots at this point.”
Capt. Michael Connor, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Jacksonville, announced there were no pet carriers found in the cargo hold or discovered above water, the Associated Press reported. Investigators also listened for barking, meows or other animal noises, but heard nothing.
In emails obtained by The Washington Post, senior Navy officials were told that all passengers on the plane were housed overnight on cots 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 spokesman at Naval Air Station Jacksonville said 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.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said Friday that teams had quickly contained any jet fuel from contaminating the river water. The White House also called to offer assistance, Curry said.
In a statement released early Saturday, Boeing extended its “well wishes to all those involved.” The 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 it 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 its planes following two deadly crashes of the 737 Max 8, the latest model of the 737.
Landsberg noted that the aircraft had no prior history of accidents, according to the Associated Press.
The plane’s passengers included military members and civilians, Connor 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 said. “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 in the interview. “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."
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.