Hijacked Cuban plane crashes in Gulf of Mexico; nine rescued

Tuesday, September 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KEY WEST, Florida (AP) _ A small plane that left Cuba with 10 people aboard Tuesday was hijacked before it crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, authorities said. One man was killed and the others were found clinging to debris and rescued by a cargo ship.

The crew of the Chios Dream, a Panamanian-registered freighter, recovered one body and the survivors _ three men, three women and three children _ from rough seas nearly 300 miles (483 kilometers) off the Florida coast about five hours after the plane took off, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

One man had severe head and neck injuries. A Coast Guard cutter planned to meet the freighter Tuesday night and pick up the survivors. The most seriously injured were to be flown to Key West for treatment.

Details of who was on the flight and where it was going were unclear late Tuesday. It was unknown whether the plane ran out of fuel; the Coast Guard said it was heading west _ away from both Florida and Cuba _ when it went down.

``Apparently it was hijacked, and the pilot indicated they only had 1 1/2 hours fuel,'' said Lauren Gail Stover, associate director of Miami-Dade County Aviation Department.

The Antonov AN-2 Colt took off from Herradura Airport in Pinar del Rio, in Cuba's western province. Based on the last radar location given by Cuban air traffic controllers and an emergency beacon signal picked up by a U.S. AWACS plane, the Colt was believed to have gone down about 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of Key West, U.S. officials said.

The survivors, however, were pulled from the water more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of that area, the Coast Guard said.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thad Allen said he is ``not really sure'' why there was such a vast discrepancy between where the plane was believed to have crashed and where it actually did.

``In a lot of these cases, as they emerge, there is a lot of confusion,'' Allen said.

Cuban officials initially reported that as many as 18 people were on the plane, but Allen said the survivors told the ship's crew that only 10 were aboard.

Air traffic control in Havana notified the air traffic control center in Miami at 8:45 a.m. that the aircraft reported a possible hijacking, said Kathleen Bergen, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman in Atlanta. The plane headed west out of Cuba, and contact was lost 15 minutes later.

The FAA had no voice or radar contact with the aircraft, Bergen said. The Pentagon also said it had no radar contact with the plane.

The AWACS plane based at Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma was on a training mission when it picked up the beacon and was diverted to the Coast Guard search.

Jose Zavala, a supervisor at Cuba's Institute of Civil Aeronautics in Havana, said by telephone the plane was used for agricultural work. He declined to provide any other details.

The long-range single-engine bush plane is used for passenger flights, crop-dusting and forest fire suppression. U.S. officials initially described the Russian-made plane as a sea plane.

A similar aircraft was stolen by its pilot and four other Cubans on June 19, 1991. That plane landed safely at Miami International Airport, directed in by air traffic controllers who had both radar and radio contact with the pilot.

U.S. President Bill Clinton said the health and safety of the survivors should be America's first concern.

``I can imagine that there will be a lot of questions about what should be done about the people that are found alive,'' Clinton said. ``I think the most important thing now is just to worry about their care.''