April 18, 2006 – Pilot Garry A. Schmidt Sr. choked back tears as he described the controlled crash landing into the sea south of St. Thomas Tuesday morning that miraculously ended without serious injury.
Schmidt, 41, was flying four juvenile detainees and two corrections officers from St. Croix to St. Thomas aboard a Piper Navajo owned by the V.I. Department of Justice when the plane's twin engines stopped working.
"You train for something like this, but you never think you'll have to do it," he said before a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
Schmidt, a Bureau of Corrections pilot for 10 years, said he alerted air control towers in San Juan and St. Thomas while losing altitude. He then reduced speed to less than 90 mph and eased the plane into the sea near Saba Island, about a mile south of Cyril E. King Airport.
"I just tried to keep the airplane flying and it didn't want to, so I had to put it in the water," Schmidt said. "I just wanted to make sure it didn't capsize."
The detainees, boys between the ages of 13 and 16, were given life vests and their handcuffs removed before the crash, he said.
All seven people escaped into a yellow inflatable raft and were soon found by a dive boat in the area.
Ryan Schopp, 24, and Duane Hausch, 43, were getting ready to dive down to a wreck near Saba Island with two tourists when they heard a U.S. Coast Guard radio advisement about the crash.
Minutes later they found the raft, where at least one person was in the water clinging to the side and another waving his hands for help.
"The look in their eyes was a little panicked," said Hausch, who works for Admiralty Dive Center. "It was glassy, fearful and panicked. They couldn't get out of the water and onto the dive boat fast enough."
Schmidt said it was difficult to keep the raft upright as the boys fled to the dive boat.
"Within 10 seconds they were all on the boat. It was instantaneous," Schopp said.
All seven people on the plane were treated and released Tuesday from Schneider Regional Medical Center, said Attorney General Kerry Drue. The worst injuries were bumps and bruises, she said.
"The fact that all seven of them were alive after hitting the water is a trip to begin with," Hausch said.
Scattered debris — a shoe, Coke bottle, scraps of paneling — was all that remained of the plane, he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration plans to raise the wreckage, which is now 84 feet under water, as part of its investigation into the cause of the accident.
The V.I. Justice Department acquired the plane, built in 1976, 10 years ago when it was confiscated during a drug raid, Drue said. It had last been serviced six months ago.
Former Attorney General Iver Stridiron, who has known Schmidt for more than 10 years, called the incident a "miracle," but, he said the miracle was accompanied by skill.
"These kinds of incidents generally don't wind up with good news," Stridiron said Tuesday afternoon. "It's a tribute to Garry and the training he has received. I've flown with him for years. I would ride in the co-pilot's seat, and I would observe how professionally he handled the aircraft. One of the things Garry insists on is that he receive recurrent training in the states every six months."
Stridiron continued, "Garry was concerned that the aircraft might need to be replaced because of extensive wear from trips between St. Thomas, St. Croix and, sometimes, Puerto Rico over the last 10 years."
Stridiron added that he had gone to Schneider Regional Tuesday morning to check on the pilot and passengers. He described the scene in the hospital waiting room.
"People were singing Garry's praises," he said. "I talked to some of the relatives of the juveniles. Garry has apparently become known to these people because he transports their children back and forth from St. Croix. One woman told me 'When I heard about the crash, and I heard Garry was flying, I felt better.'"
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.