PLANE CRASH IN PALAU KILLS NINE

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By Malou L. Sayson

KOROR, Palau (November 18, 1998 - Palau Horizon/Marianas Variety) - Nine people, including a Filipino pilot and his 19-year-old Australian co-pilot, perished in a mid-morning plane crash yesterday amid heavy rains at the Palau International Airport.

The victims were identified as Ponciano Salanga, the pilot; Simon Gerovich, the co-pilot; and seven passengers: Hatsue Ngiraloi; the mother of a child named Melidiul both from Peleliu; Defrosa Gabriel; Sharon Blau; Cherokee Blau, Patrick Tomei and Victoria Rafael, all from Angaur.

The plane, a seven-seater Cessna 207, crashed when it approached the runway at the one-third mark from the south, flipped over on its side and hit the grassy area at the right hand corner of the runway.

The accident is considered the worst ever to happen in Palau since 1990 when a small plane carrying five passengers crashed at the airport, but at the northern end of the runway.

According to Francis Toribiong and his wife Susan, who were the first to witness the plane crash, said they heard the plane attempting to land.

The plane made four attempts, the last three of which were made close to his house, Toribiong said. The plane hovered in the air for five to 10 minutes, making futile attempts, he added.

"There was heavy rain. The cloud was (so far) down that we couldn't see the airport. Everything was gray," observed Susan Toribiong, who was looking out from their verandah when the plane hovered in the area.

"We were afraid it was going to hit our house," said Susan Toribiong.

"It pushed the throttle and then went up again on the last try," described Toribiong. "I was thinking the plane might run out of fuel," he added.

All he heard was a loud engine noise that suddenly went dead.

"There was no explosion."  Susan called "911" while Francis frantically got into his car and drove to the airport.

But Kelly Kyota, who was among three people to arrive at the crash site first, said, "The plane exploded on impact."

Two other witnesses, his half-brother Steven Kyota and Andy Olkeriil, were all working at the Airai Fiberglass right behind the scene of the crash.

They were at the shop when the engine revved up. They then ran up the hill where the plane had crashed.

"It was weird. It was like a plane taking off, whirring loudly," observed Kelly, who himself is a pilot. Kelly said the plane stumped on the runway and suddenly flipped over on its side.

When Francis Toribiong arrived on the scene, he saw the plane upside down with one wing broken up over the bottom.

"It was eerie. I looked at it as if nobody could survive," he said.

Rescue attempt in vain

According to Kelly, the plane blew up a second time as they were trying to rescue a boy whose body was halfway out of the plane.

Francis Toribiong said he saw the boy with his legs sticking out of the fuselage.

"There was no blood. It rained so much and there was only the fuel fire, which was just like a bonfire," he noted. Toribiong stayed at the scene for 40 minutes before the police responded.

According to Toribiong, Kelly was holding the boy in his hands. "Can't see any blood because of the heavy rain," he said.

Kelly was the one who pulled the badly burned boy out of the plane. He held the boy and applied CPR while on the way to the hospital. The boy was pronounced dead on arrival at the Belau National Hospital in Meyuns.

When he got to the airport building, Toribiong said he began screaming "There's a plane crash... there's a plane crash."

"It looked like nobody believed me. So, I drove to the airport maintenance building and repeated the same news. There was a Filipino driver with a radio on his hand. The guy this time rushed over to the site," said Toribiong.

Later the airport maintenance crew drove to the smoldering area. "We're 200 feet away and we saw the smoke," he said.

Richard Misch also witnessed the crash from the Palau National Communications Corp. building.

As of press time, the incident is being investigated with Attorney General Jesse Caplan and lawyer John Rice coordinating on-site inspections.

Although the Justice and Commerce and Trade Ministries are in charge of the investigation, the national government is requesting assistance from the United States Federal Aviation Administration and other pertinent agencies to investigate the incident.

A directive from President Kuniwo Nakamura prevented the media from getting to the scene.

The names of the fatalities were withheld pending notification of next of kin.

The President, however, extended his deepest sympathies to relatives of the crash victims.

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