SEARCH FOR MISSING MEN IN PALAU WATERS CONTINUES

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8,200 square miles canvassed for signs of downed plane

By Oyaol Ngirairikl

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, April 5, 2012) – Search teams expanded the search for three men whose small plane they reported was running out of fuel above the waters of Palau Sunday night.

On Monday, U.S. Coast Guard boats and aircraft, along with Republic of Palau government resources and private vessels, searched more than 2,300 square nautical miles of ocean for Palau police officers Earl Decherong and Willy Mays Towai, and Cessna pilot Frank Ohlinger.

On Tuesday, the search expanded to more than 6,000 square nautical miles, and yesterday the team of military and civilian vessels covered an area of 8,200 square nautical miles -- approximately the size of New Jersey.

No signs of the three men or their missing plane have been found

Even as the search goes into its fourth day, the island community of Palau is hoping for a miracle.

About 6:30 p.m. yesterday, a Palau patrol boat rushed to inspect some debris spotted earlier by a Coast Guard plane, but it turned out to be unrelated to the missing aircraft, said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. J.G. Richard Russell. The plane was unable to determine exactly what the debris was, but it warranted further inspection, Russell said.

"We're still holding out hope," said Fermin Meriang, Palau President Johnson Toribiong's press secretary. "We're hoping for a miracle."

[PIR editor’s note: Meanwhile, Palau’s Division of Fish and Wildlife Protection has filed charges against five of the Chinese fishermen involved in the illegal fishing activities conducted in Kayangel’s conservation area. Among the charges are "unlawful entry, fishing without permit, attempted fishing without permit, conspiracy to commit fishing without permit," and the accused men claimed their vessel was operating in conjunction with a larger ship in the area. When police attempted to detain the other vessel, they found it some miles away, set on fire by crewmembers who were also arrested. One man in the smaller vessel died from injuries sustained during the gunfight.]

Sunday

The plane went down Sunday after Palau authorities discovered what they believed was an illegal fishing operation. A police boat confronted a smaller fishing vessel, and the spotter plane was searching for the "mothership," Toribiong said in a statement.

When the navigation system failed and the plane ran low on fuel, the officers radioed that they were gliding into a landing, although they could see no light or land.

Search efforts will continue today.

The Coast Guard was called Sunday evening and at first light Monday morning started its search.

The ongoing search for the three missing men includes a large Coast Guard cutter and an aircraft. Palau also has offered a "flotilla of local boats" to assist, Meriang said.

Also joining the search is a mega-yacht owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who ventured to Palau after visiting Guam about a week ago.

Pacific Daily News reporter Brett Kelman contributed to this report.

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