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After a cargo plane’s ‘amazing’ water landing, this Honolulu rescue team jumped into action

Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 3:46 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 29, 2021 at 3:49 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Three Honolulu aircraft rescue firefighters are talking for the first time about their role in helping save two pilots earlier this month after engine failure caused their Boeing 737 cargo plane to crash in the ocean off Kalaeloa.

On July 2, the pilot of Transair Flight 810 to Kahului alerted air traffic control it was headed back to Honolulu’s airport because of an in-flight emergency.

“We’ve lost number one engine,” the pilot said over the radio.

“And we’re coming straight to the airport. We’re going to need the fire department. It’s a chance we’re going to lose the other engine, too. It’s running very hot.”

“It was about 1:40 in the morning,” said Airport Fire Lt. Ray Vegas.

Everybody at the fire station was asleep.

“You hear the alarms go off and you get up real fast,” said Airport Equipment Operator Terrence Kashima.

Firefighter Stuart Lee was on watch that night.

“All they said is that there was an engine out. They couldn’t tell us what type of plane. They couldn’t tell us who was on board,” Lee said.

The crew was initially standing by in fire trucks.

But when the plane failed to make it to land, they swapped their fire gear for life jackets and boarded a rescue boat named Koa Kai.

“We just knew that the Coast Guard was on their way,” said Kashima. “We had GPS points. That was about it.”

The trek from the airport to the crash site took nearly 45 minutes. And the conditions were less than ideal.

Kashima was responsible for piloting the boat. He recalled, “It was windy, choppy, it’s dark.”

A Coast Guard helicopter was first to spot the wreckage from a helicopter. As the boat approached the crash site, Vegas said, “We smelled a lot of jet fuel in the air.”

But crashing waves hampered the firefighters’ search for survivors.

“We couldn’t even really see the plane,” Lee said. “A lot of it was just big pieces of debris.”

Vegas said without the Coast Guard it would have been almost impossible to locate the pilots.

“Thank goodness they do have infrared on their helicopters,” he said.

One of the pilots was found clinging to the tail of the aircraft. The other was floating on a pile of debris.

The crew says both men were exhausted, struggling to stay above water.

“The rescue diver was also in the water,” Vegas said. “We pulled up next to the debris as close as we can.”

The swimmer led the pilot to the side of the Koa Kai. Crews removed a door and lifted the man inside the boat.

“He was in his pilot’s uniform. Still had shoes, boots on,” Lee said. “Everything still intact. Just kind of red with blood. I was surprised how great of shape he was.”

They said the 50-year-old didn’t say much. But he was alert and knew where he was. Besides some cuts on his head, he seemed OK.

“We had the patient in the wheelhouse. I was trying to do an assessment,” Lee said. “It was the only place we could have kept him warm with all the waves coming over.”

Meanwhile, the tail of the plane had sunk.

The Coast Guard worked quickly to pluck the other pilot from the water and lift the 58-year-old into the chopper.

Rescuers credited the pilots’ survival to experience, quick thinking and luck.

“Amazing how they landed the plane and kept themselves alive,” Lee said. “Happy they were trained to the best that they were. Made our job way easier for sure.”

Both pilots were taken to Queen’s Medical Center and later released. The investigation into what caused both of the plane’s engines to fail continues.

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