ONE DEAD IN POHNPEI HELICOPTER CRASH

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By Bill Jaynes

POHNPEI, Federated States of Micronesia (Kaselehlie Press, Oct. 1) - Friday, September 28, was a bad day for accidents in Pohnpei. Not long after emergency teams arrived on the scene of an accident in which a large tree fell across the road onto a passing vehicle, breaking the driver’s legs and taking out two power poles in the vicinity of the Moylan’s Insurance building, they received another call. A helicopter had crashed into the retaining wall of Club Flamingo in Nett.

That anyone survived the tragic crash of a helicopter belonging to the Australian owned company, Tropic Helicopters, is a miracle.

The helicopter went down at approximately 3:45 on Friday afternoon killing the pilot, Sammy Villamena and injuring passenger Cliff Pereda.

Pereda is in the Pohnpei State Hospital with broken ribs.

Marie Olter, owner of the nearby bar, "The Rusty Anchor," was preparing for opening when she heard an explosion that she said "shook the building".

The security guard for the bar had been in the parking lot and ran in telling Marie that he thought the sound had been caused by a helicopter he’d just seen fly overhead. She called the police telling them to bring everything they had.

She ran up the stairs, locked the bar and before she got to the accident site the Fire Truck and Emergency Services Vehicle were already on the scene.

The "explosion" she heard was likely the pontoon’s that allow the helicopter to land on water popping like two giant balloons. There was no fuel explosion.

Pohnpei International Airport has the only fire trucks that could have dealt with any explosion.

The office was notified of the crash as part of the calls that the Police Department made in order to deal with the disaster. The person who answered the phone was apparently reluctant to interrupt a meeting that was taking place involving those responsible for the fire trucks and so they were not notified until 45 minutes later when the meeting ended.

Ray Verg-In, math teacher at COM, was the first on the scene and witnessed the crash. He said that he was a passenger in the car driven by his wife, which enabled him to see more than if he had been driving.

He said that he saw the helicopter clear the high tree line and begin to take a dive. Both rotors appeared to be functioning and there didn’t appear to be any problem with the helicopter other than the fact that it was heading straight down to the ground at 70 to 80 miles per hour. He said that at the last moment the pilot seemed to try to recover but it was too late.

Verg-In said that he was once a pilot and thought that the pilot had possibly "lost the horizon" and accidentally driven the machine into the ground.

He said that he ran to the crash site and yelled, "Is anyone still alive?"

He heard someone yelling for help and sprang to action. Since the helicopter was high on the retaining wall he ran to the gate of Club Flamingo, rolled underneath, and ran the rest of the way to the crash site.

The pilot, Sammy Villamena, was nearly dead by the time he arrived but the passenger, Cliff Pereda, was coherent enough to hold a conversation and to have turned off the helicopter’s engine. Pereda is an engineer for Tropic Helicopters.

Pereda, in considerable pain, said from his hospital bed on Saturday that if it hadn’t been for Verg-in he would likely have gone into shock and may have died. He said that something was forced against his back and that he couldn’t breathe. He told Verg-In that he thought his heart had been punctured.

Verg-In pulled out a pocket knife he’d just sharpened the night before and cut the restraining harness from Pereda and checked for punctures. Pereda said that Verg-In kept him talking and in focus. "He kept telling me, ‘You’re going to make it’, and I did!" He shook his head, "I don’t know how."

Pereda said that when they passed over the tree line he heard a loud "whoof" sound as if one of the engines had flamed out. Just after that, Villamena tried to make an emergency landing. Pereda said that he knew from the angle they were heading to the ground that they weren’t going to make it. He said, "I don’t know. It all just happened so fast."

Police and rescue crews were fast and efficient, arriving on the scene only moments after the crash and handling the disaster as if it was something they do every day. Their training showed at the scene.

Perhaps the only error that some people on the scene commented about was not setting up a perimeter to keep onlookers back. At one point, police had to escort sixty or seventy young people dressed in PICS High School maroon out of the Flamingo parking lot where they all had a clear view of Villamena’s twisted body inside the cockpit.

This is the second death of a Tropic Helicopters employee in the last few weeks. Police sources say that several weeks ago, a Korean engineer who was working on one of the helicopters onboard a fishing vessel died. It is uncertain whether the engineer had a heart attack and fell from the top deck to the bottom or whether he lost his footing on the rolling vessel and plunged to the deck.

Pereda said that he thought his leg had been broken but doctors at the hospital took an x-ray and found no break. The very lucky Pereda has broken ribs but is quite alive and thankful for the fact.

The Kaselehlie Press

© 2007 The Kaselehlie Press

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