A passenger on board the plane which crash-landed near Papua New Guinea today has praised the “awesome” response of the locals who jumped into their boats and pulled people from the jet as it sank into the ocean.
Authorities confirmed the airliner – which was en route to Papua New Guinea from Micronesia – missed the runway and crashed into the water off the tiny island of Weno, north-west of Papua New Guinea, around 9.30am Friday local time.
Without hesitation, men and women who witnessed the crash from the shore rowed out in a flotilla of small fishing boats towards the plane.
They managed to rescue all 35 passengers and 12 crew members, who were waste-deep in water by the time they arrived.
Some had begun to swim for their lives while others were standing on the wings of the rapidly-sinking jet. At least one passenger was injured.
Bill Jaynes, an American journalist based in Pohnpei who was on board the Boeing 737-800, said:
“I was really impressed with the locals who immediately started coming out in boats.
“One would have thought they would have been afraid to approach a plane that has just crashed. They were awesome and I was really impressed with their whole response.”
Jaynes, told Nine News he had been in waist-deep water on the plane.
“I thought we landed hard, until I looked over to the side of the plane and saw a hole the water was coming in,” he said.
“I thought this is not the way it’s supposed to happen.”
In the footage, he points to a cut in his forehead and says he’s just happy to be alive.
“I called my wife and she cried – I asked her why as I’m talking to her.
“Fortunately my injury is just a head injury- there were some pretty severe ones but no deaths.”
Witness Matthew Colson, who lives in Chuuk and runs a radio station, told Pacific Daily News after visiting a local hospital that people were being treated for broken legs and at least one person had a broken arm.
Eight people remain in hospital, reports The Guam Daily Post. One is on a ventilator and others suffering fractures.
Colson explained that locals had been gathered at a market on Friday morning near the airport. As soon as the plane hit the water, he said, they sprung into action.
“They’re people that come here to go to work or go to the store or bring fish to the market to sell, and they just jumped in their boats and started helping,” Colson said.
With help U.S. Navy Seabees who were in Chuuk for a construction project, locals used their small fishing boats to shuttle people from the plane to shore.
Authorities then closed the roads to allow passengers to get to the hospital, Colson said.
Melba Aisek, general manager of the Truk Stop Hotel and Chuuk resident, told Pacific Daily News: “We can see the plane from our dock.
“So, from the dock, I could see there were plenty of boats heading that way. We ourselves, Truk Stop, sent out our dive boat to assist, but returned as there was already a good crowd of people already helping transport folks to the (runway).
“(It is) very lucky that this happened during the day and (they) got good help from passersby.”
Anthony Blake, a medic based in Fiji and the Pacific, also praised the “awesome community response” by locals and agencies on Twitter.
The passenger plane was flying from Micronesia’s Pohnpei to Chuuk Airport, where it was scheduled to make a stop before continuing on to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.
Chuuk Airport manager Jimmy Emilio told local media outlets the Air Niugini plane missed the runway by about 160 metres. Witnesses report that the plane was flying “very low” before it crashed.
Air Niugini, which the national airline of Papua New Guinea, said in a statement: “Air Niugini is now positioning assistance to Chuuk for our passengers and crew.
“We are also in touch with the embassies, passenger representatives, stakeholders and families of the crew. We thank everyone in Chuuk for the assistance provided today,” the airline said in their statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the passengers, crew and their families at this time.”
The runway, like others in the north Pacific, is relatively short at 1,831 metres (6,006 feet). It is surrounded on three sides by water.
The Chuuk lagoon was a famous World War II battle site and dozens of Japanese vessels and planes are on the lagoon floor, now a tourist attraction for scuba divers.
It is not the first time a plane has overshot the runway in Micronesia. In 2008, an Asia Pacific Airlines cargo Boeing 727 overran and ended up with its nose landing gear in the lagoon at the end of the Pohnpei airport runway.
Papua New Guinea’s Accident Investigation Commission (AIC) said it was preparing to send investigators to Weno.
“We’re trying to arrange a team to go there but I cannot give you any more information because I simply don’t have it,” a spokesman told AFP.
Air Niugini is Papua New Guinea’s national airline and lists only one 737-800 among its fleet of 21 aircraft on its official website.
According to registration details supplied by the airline, the plane was built in 2005 and had previously been owned by Air India Express and Mumbai-based Jet Airways.
The AIC website details an incident involving the aircraft in May this year when a Hercules operated by a freight company clipped the 737’s wing while taxiing, causing “significant damage”.
Plane landings on water with few serious injuries are rare, but in January 2009 pilots Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles successfully landed a US Airways aicraft in the Hudson River.
The plane had run into a flock of geese just northeast of New York City’s LaGuardia Airport and lost all engine power, forcing the emergency landing. All 155 people aboard were rescued by nearby boats.
It’s currently unclear what caused the crash.
In their statement Air Niugini said they have been told “the weather was very poor with heavy rain and reduced visibility at the time of incident”.
Papua New Guinea Accident Investigation Commission are preparing a team to investigate the site of the accident.
Micronesia is an independent island Pacific archipelago north of Australia and east of the Philippines, with a population of around 100,000.