Hawaii plane crash pilots describe surviving overnight in the open ocean

Miracle at Sea: Part 1
Published: Aug. 2, 2016 at 1:08 AM HST|Updated: Aug. 2, 2016 at 1:31 AM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - For the first time, the young co-pilots whose plane crash landed in the water 25 miles off of Hawai'i Island are sharing their story in their own words.

23-year-old Sydnie Uemoto and 26-year-old David McMahon say they could have never survived without one another's help and they only made it through a dark, cold night in the open ocean because they knew it wasn't their time to go.

"All the support and prayers and thoughts and positive vibes that we got from everybody it was just -- it was mindblowing. It was amazing," said Sydnie Uemoto.

"We felt all that energy from the prayers and thoughts because we'd randomly get these waves of energy. It just had to be from everybody thinking about us and sending good vibes and prayers," added David McMahon.

The pair's determination to make it back to their families and friends is what fueled them through their 21-hour ordeal, which many are now calling a "miracle at sea".

Keeping one another awake and moving was their only focus when they realized search crews couldn't see them and they would have to start swimming to shore if they wanted to survive.

"For me, I'm amazed at how much we overcame and did out there," said Uemoto.

"I definitely feel that we're extremely blessed to go through that -- and it is if you look back on it, like a miracle -- and it's due to everybody giving their prayers and thanks. We're just extremely blessed to be here today," said McMahon.

"Yes. I definitely see it as a blessing," Uemoto added.

McMahon and Uemoto work together at Mokulele Airlines, but had only seen each other in passing. Uemoto was flying home to Hawai'i Island for her father's birthday and planned to earn some multi-engine hours with another pilot along the way -- but when he couldn't make it, David joined her instead.

"I had no idea who David was," Uemoto said.

"The first time we actually spoke was in the car on the way to the airport," said McMahon.

McMahon and Uemoto say it was a clear beautiful day when the departed Kalealoa for Kona.

Three thousand feet above the deep blue sea and 25 miles from the Kona coast, their first engine failed – and then, a second.

"We knew how to react to when the first engine went and we did appropriately, but in training you don't kill the second engine," said McMahon as Uemoto chuckled next to him.

"When he asked me to land it I was like -- I was thinking in my head, 'Oh my gosh, I don't know how to ditch a plane'. But he said, 'Just do your best and I kind of just imagined landing on the runway," explained Uemoto. "I remember hitting the water and that noise and seeing the water come up over the windshield. I was kind of in a daze for a little while seeing the water come over the cockpit and I just kind of had to register what happened and David was on the wing saying, 'Come on, we got to get out'," said Uemoto.

"Everything was like slow motion, but fast at the same time. Everything was quiet and it was almost like a shade of white and immediately after hitting -- we both went forward. I think I remember Sydnie hitting the dash and then water was just rushing in," said McMahon.

"When I stood up, I realized I was bleeding and I told him, 'I can't go in the water'. And he said, 'Why?' And I was like, 'I'm bleeding and there's sharks'. And he said, 'You can't think about that right now'," said Uemoto.

"She grabbed the vests and the plane was going down pretty fast and I was standing on the wing and she was right outside the door and we just put the life vests on and jumped in the water. Within a couple minutes the plane was under the water," recalled McMahon.

Uemoto and McMahon made several distress calls before crashing. ?

"I knew they were coming, so I wasn't too afraid yet. I was just like, 'Okay, we're just going to float here'. We just kept talking to keep our nerves down, you know? I was like, 'They're going to come find us, you know? We just survived a plane crash, that's the worst of it. We'll just wait for Coast Guard to come'. And then it took longer than expected," explained McMahon.

The pair stayed by the wreckage -- sticking close to the site where they went down. Within two hours, they spotted the first of several planes and helicopters.

"They were flying and they were circling and they flew over us -- and I'm not lying -- over ten times directly above us. And every time they flew over I waived my vest over my head and I was treading water and just trying to get their attention, but also at that point we were in white caps. The sun was -- it was around 5 PM -- the sun was low and the glare on the water," said McMahon.

"It's definitely a little heartbreaking. I would see David trying so hard to get their attention and I would just wave my hands and you would see them fly right over you and then you kind of follow them thinking, 'Oh if they did see us, they'll turn. that's the indication that they did see us'. But then you see them still go straight towards Maui and it's just like -- they didn't see us. And it was definitely disappointing. Kind of heartbreaking. And to just do it over and over. You see it coming, you get excited, you get hopeful and then you see them go and you see them not turn around and it just -- as quickly as you came up. It just goes right back down," explained Uemoto.

"It was pretty hard for them to see anything. All we had was our heads above the water. Every time they flew over us, it was like, 'Come on! Why don't you see us?' And at a certain point I turned to Sydnie and said, 'We can't just float here anymore, we got to swim'," said McMahon.

Surviving the plane crash was just the beginning. For McMahon and Uemoto, the real challenge still lied ahead.

The pair could see the outline of the mountains of Hawai'i Island, but no distinct land features.

We were super far out in the channel and we went down 25 miles northwest of Kona so we were deep, deep water," described McMahon.

The pilots were no longer strangers, but survivors together in the open ocean.

"He did a really good job keeping me calm in the water. I was definitely scared and he was talking to me -- just like small talk like how we did in the plane. He was asking me questions about my family and then I would try to ask him back. It was definitely scary for me, but he did a wonderful job keeping me calm and keeping my head above water also," said Uemoto.

McMahon was a little more comfortable in the water. He had been on the swim team and was also a surfer – but he was at a disadvantage, just 30 minutes after crashed his life vest was no longer staying inflated. He says the tab to pull the CO2 cartridge fell off and left a hole. For the first eight hours they were at sea, McMahon was swimming without a floatation device.

They kept moving. They weren't talking a lot – so as not to exhaust themselves or get too much salt water in their mouth – but they routinely checked in.

"After a while all the air in your life vests starts to go out and you have to re-blow it, so I just kept the tube in my mouth and every time I would exhale I would just exhale into the life vest -- just to keep it filled," described Uemoto.

After eight hours of backstrokes, breast strokes, free-style and floating, McMahon was starting to fatigue.

"I knew if we didn't figure something out, I was going to drown," McMahon said.

Uemoto managed to help him inflate one side of the vest that was still working.

"It was the relief I needed. I was able to rest my neck on her ankles. I had her ankles like this around my neck and I was just on my back and I kicked and she was swimming," described McMahon.

But as the sun set and night fell, McMahon started to freeze.

"I remember just asking Sydnie, 'Sydnie, I need to stop. I'm freezing. I'm exhausted. I can't kick anymore'. And so she would stop every once in a while, just shortly but she was like, 'We can't stop. We got to keep going'. I may have been the one strong in the beginning, but overnight I wouldn't have made it without her. There was a point where I was getting abdominal cramps and I couldn't kick anymore and I didn't have my hands and I was telling her that and she was just like, 'Just hang on to my ankles' and so that's what I did. And I tried to kick as much as I could. Probably wasn't doing much, but she tugged me for a good hour, hour and a half and I just laid there. Rested. Couldn't sleep. But just gathered my energy and it was enough of a break to where after that two hours, I had enough energy again to where I could help her kick and then we just kept going," recalled McMahon.

"I was just thinking, 'Okay, if we do stop all this progress we've made is just going to push us back'. We were fighting the current the whole time and I just thought, 'Okay, that's two steps forward and four steps back kind of deal' and I just didn't want that. I was like, 'No, we're going to keep going'," described Uemoto.

But Uemoto's strength was tested as well. Overnight, she was attacked by jelly fish – stings that still scar her arms weeks later.

"What I've heard from some people after all of this is that jelly fish protect you from other predators. And they were like, 'Yeah, the jelly fish probably kept the sharks and other things away'. So I was like, 'Okay, I'll take a jelly fish sting over a shark bite'," said Uemoto laughing.

Turns out a shark wasn't too far off. As the pair slowly and steadily made their way to shore, they realized they weren't alone.

"There was these little black fish that followed us in for awhile and so I was just watching it. Cute little black fish following us. And then all of a sudden, they were gone and I didn't even look for it -- but it just caught my eye. Right in front of me, probably 6 to 10 feet down. It was just a big black shadow -- like six to seven feet and immediately I knew it was a shark," said McMahon as Uemoto chuckled next to him

"I didn't say anything right away but she could tell from my eyes," said McMahon.

"My heart starting beating again and I was freaking out. I was like, 'Should I swim faster? What should we do?' And we're so far from land," said Uemoto.

"Yeah, we're a good ways out. I was telling her, 'Just stay calm, you know? Don't splash. Try to keep your heart rate down. Just keep swimming like it's not there', and so that's what we did," explained McMahon.

"It never got real close to us, but it was circling us for a good 10 to 15 minutes. We're on his radar. He's looking for us. He's either going to wait for us to get real weak or he's just – I don't know what he's doing. As he would go behind us I would turn and then I would have my feet ready if he came close," said McMahon.

"I asked him -- I said, 'So what are you going to do if it does?' And he's like, 'I'm going to look it in the eye', and that's all he said. And I was thinking in my head, 'Okay, I don't know what that does, but whatever. Okay David, you look him in the eye. I'm going to keep swimming'," said Uemoto laughing hard.

The shark eventually left the pair alone, and they kept swimming. The sun set and rose as they made their way toward shore.

"We were making all these plans, you know? We were like, 'Okay, David. We're going to hit that beach by noon. We're going to go get lunch. Have some water. Call our families'. And then when we thought it was like 11 -- we were like, 'Okay, we'll make it by dinner, you know? We're not staying the night in the ocean. We're not doing that again'," said Uemoto.

Several planes and helicopters passed over them that morning searching for the pair, but none seemed to see them – even after the pilots took their life vests off and started floating on them like boogie boards instead in hopes that their bodies above water would look like bigger targets.

Uemoto and McMahon say they were convinced they'd have to rescue themselves and just kept swimming – refusing to give up.

21 hours after they crashed, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter finally spotted them.

"He turned to look at it and he said, 'This is it, Syd. This is the one God sent for us,' and I looked and it was a black dot and this is what amazes me because it was a black dot – I don't know how he knows this and I said, 'Okay, David. Well, I'm going to just keep swimming',  It's that high and low again. And I could hear it coming closer and I would look and I could see it was orange and I could tell -- oh my God, it's coming right for us. And at that point we stopped and we waved and we waved and waved and waved and we watched it and it just made its circle and we knew they saw us," said Uemoto.

"All the other times they flew over us I didn't say anything like that. I was just trying to get its attention, but before this one was even close I just knew -- that's our ride home. And it was. I don't know how I knew it. I can't explain it. It was just that feeling," said McMahon.

"I cried and he hugged me and I said, 'Thank you, David. Thank you so much'," said Uemoto.

"I broke down at first and then I was just so happy to see them -- just knowing that we're going to get rescued," said McMahon.

"The rescue diver came down and said, 'You don't know how happy I am to see you guys. I saw you in the paper this morning' -- pointing at me. And I said, 'You don't know how happy we are to see you!'" explained McMahon and Uemoto together.

Uemoto and McMahon say they had no idea how many people were looking for them until they were rescued.

"It was just heartwarming how many people put in their time and effort to come look for David and I. I was just thinking, 'We're just two civilian pilots. We just went to go have fun'. And all the support and prayers and thoughts – it was amazing," said Uemoto.

"It was my will to live. I just knew that that was not my time. I was too young. We survived the plane crash. We survived the night in the ocean. We can not go down before we get rescued here -- even if we had to save ourselves," said Uemoto.

"We both knew we weren't -- it wasn't our time. I think that was the biggest role. We just both knew we were going to go back and just be a family," explained McMahon.

"People go, 'You didn't get tired during the night?' And I said, 'No' I truly believe it. It was everybody praying that just kept us going. And you know, they're that comfort -- that sense of comfort I had at night with not being as scared as I thought would be. I definitely thought it was the prayers and thoughts," said Uemoto.

"Yeah, you'd think you'd be the most scared at night, but we actually were -- I felt my most comfort at night. It was calm and comforting at night and it just had to be from everybody thinking about us," said McMahon.

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