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By Ana Niumataiwalu, Reijeli Kikau and Verenaisi Raicola

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Feb. 1) - Three people are believed to be dead after the small aircraft they were traveling in crashed into a mountainous area outside the Fiji town of Lautoka.

[PIR editor’s note: Lautoka is on the northwest coast of Viti Levu, the largest island in Fiji.]

Villagers from Nagaga who watched the place crash rushed to the scene to try to save the passengers.

They returned from the crash site before dark last night and confirmed there were three bodies.

Assistant Superintendent of Police Rusiate Saini confirmed that the three were dead when they reached the crash scene.

The aircraft was identified as a Cessna 172 with registration DQSKY belonging to the Advance Aviation Training Academy.

He said that at 4:05 p.m., they had received a report from the Nagaga villagers that a crash had occurred in their area.

Saini said the Lautoka police station then crosschecked with the control tower at Nadi Airport to confirm if there was a crash.

He said, "Upon contacting the Nadi tower, I spoke to ab Tui who had confirmed there was a training plane flying towards this area (Abaca). We had requested the particulars of the aircraft which was DQSKY owned by Advanced Aviation. We also requested the particulars for those that were on board but the tower was unable to give us that information."

Saini said that once the details were confirmed they sent 14 police officers plus fire and military officers to the scene.

He said the officers were accompanied by villagers of Nagaga to the scene. When the Fiji Times team reached Abaca, villagers had returned from the scene.

Villager Jone Lotawa confirmed all the three in the plane were dead.

He said the plane was badly burnt and only the nose, half of each wing and half the body of the plane were visible.

Village headman Livai Tuimereke said he saw the aircraft flying over the village and it was the first time he had seen one going past the village.

Eyewitness Ro Ela Mailoto said she also saw the crash.

She said that around 4:00 p.m., she and some other villagers had sighted the aircraft circling above the village.

She said the aircraft spun twice in the air before crashing into the mountainous area inland.

"The plane spun once and then on the second spin, the aircraft climbed and tried flying over a waterfall, " she said. "It managed to get above the waterfall but then it overturned and fell to the ground. Once it crashed into the ground, there was a large explosion followed by heavy black smoke."

She said villagers rushed to the scene trying to rescue the passengers but could not.

A helicopter was also sent up to the crash site and could not land. Advance Aviation Training (Fiji) Ltd manager Deborah Hinton said CAAFI would be flying up again in the morning to investigate. She said they would await news from them. "The flight was a scenic flight flown by a commercial pilot and did not involve any student pilots or flight instructors," she said.

An Advanced Aviation Training School student, who preferred anonymity, said the plane, which was flown by pilot Frederick Mitchell and two tourists, left Nadi airport after 3:00 p.m. yesterday afternoon.

"Mr. Mitchell is to turn 22 this year and he graduated in 2005 and this would be his third year of flying as a graduate pilot," the student said.

The student said they were not aware of the nationalities of the two passengers who had accompanied Mitchell on the joy flight around Lautoka and Nadi area yesterday afternoon.

The student said they were also anticipating news from the crash area when they were called to the school last night.

Police spokesman Assistant Superintendent Ulaiasi Ravula said a team of police officers from Lautoka accompanied by a military officer had gone up to the crash scene.

He said an operation center had been set up at the Lautoka Police Station and they have been updated on the operation by the team at the scene.

"The center has been informed that the team has reached the scene and they have secured the area. That is first thing that they do and they would be up there the whole night searching for the plane," he said.

He said senior police officers including Divisional Police Commissioner Western Waisea Kadawa were on their way to the scene last night.

ASP Ravula said Assistant Superintendent Eroni Antonio was also liaising with the Airports Fiji Limited officials on the issue at the Nadi International Airport and would regularly brief the Police Operation Centre in Lautoka. The father of a 21-year-old helicopter pilot Frederick Mitchell, who died in a plane crash yesterday near Tavakubu, Lautoka, said the family was still trying to come to terms with the incident.

Mitchell, who was informed of the tragedy last night by his son's flying instructor who called from Australia, said the news came as a "shock" to the family. "We only celebrated Frederick's 21st birthday last August and the news is so depressing," he said when contacted last night. Mitchell, who spoke between sobs, said his son had just received his flying license last year and the news was devastating.

"Frederick was planning to go to the US for a break and we were in the process of fixing his papers for the trip but that is all too late now because I am sure he and the two plane passengers would not be able to survive such a crash. My wife Josephine was talking to him today (yesterday) while he was at the Advance Aviation Training Academy in Nadi, and she said that Frederick was in the office all day. He must have been sent on the joyride in the afternoon because my wife said she spoke to him several times in the day," he said.

Frederick said his wife, who was also still in a state of shock, left for Nadi last night.

"I told her to wait until the morning but she insisted it would be too late," said the emotional father of two. "She has taken my daughter with her and at the moment I am lost for words and cannot say anything more until we can confirm the death. I will be traveling to Nadi first thing in the morning to join my wife and our daughter," he said.

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