Investigation Underway Into Fatal CNMI Airport Crash
By Moneth Deposa
SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Nov. 20, 2012) – Federal authorities will investigate the fatal plane crash at the Northern Marianas Islands’ Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport early yesterday morning and, until the process is completed, the cause of the accident will not be known.
Star Marianas Air executive vice president Shaun Christian told Saipan Tribune this after a news briefing on the accident that he described as the first-ever in the history of the company's operations since 1999.
"The National Traffic Safety Board as well as the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] have been notified of the accident. The NTSB is sending an investigator who will be arriving tomorrow evening and it will be his responsibility to investigate and determine the cause of the accident," Christian said.
A press conference is scheduled today with Commonwealth Health Center (CHC) representatives to give further updates.
A Piper Cherokee aircraft with six tourists and a pilot onboard crashed on the runway around 6:20am soon after takeoff yesterday, killing one passenger. The plane was bound for Tinian carrying a Korean, a Filipino, and five Chinese nationals.
Authorities confirmed that a female Chinese tourist was pronounced dead on arrival at the Commonwealth Health Center due to widespread burns and multiple body fractures. Authorities have yet to release her name.
The Filipino, 55-year-old Juanito Simitara, suffered minor injuries only and was discharged after treatment at CHC. He was categorized as the walk-in victim at the public hospital.
Saipan Tribune learned that the aircraft's pilot, 26-year-old Korean national Jae Choi, is still in critical condition at the hospital's intensive care unit. He is on respiratory support. As of 5pm yesterday, it has not been decided yet if he will be airlifted to a Guam hospital.
The four other injured Chinese nationals who are currently being treated at the hospital's surgery department include Xiao Hwa Zhuo, who suffered first and second degree burns; Meiling Zhou, who sustained a fracture in the shoulders; Xin Hong, who suffered a lumbar fracture; and Xiu Hong Zhu, who sustained lacerations on the forehead.
Families of the victims were seen yesterday waiting outside the ER and being helped by many individuals, including representatives of Star Marianas Air.
According to Christian, a Star Marianas representative is on standby at the hospital to ensure that all support and the needs of the victims and their families are being address and provided for.
He said the company is also coordinating the possible medical evacuation of the pilot to the Guam hospital anytime.
Christian also said that the company will shoulder the medical expenses of all the victims.
"Star Marianas Air is providing whatever assistance and cooperation it can to the other passengers and government authorities," he added.
When asked about a possible timeframe for the release of the investigation results, Star Marianas lawyer Timothy Bellas said the process usually takes time.
The two officials disclosed that all Chinese nationals involved in the accident are not part of the inaugural flight of China Eastern that arrived early Friday morning.
Incident commander John Tagabuel, during yesterday's press conference, said the families and relatives of the victims are being counseled by hospital staff since yesterday.
Tagabuel stressed that the incident is still under investigation and all information released by the hospital are classified as preliminary.
Like Christian, Tagabuel confirmed that the accident had one fatality and six injuries. He refused to disclose further details but said that families have been informed about the accident.
Based on CHC records, the crash was reported to the hospital at 6:45am, immediately activating the Commonwealth Health Coordinating Council (CHCC) emergency center. At 7:10am, patients started to arrive at the emergency room, including one walk-in patient, the Filipino national.
Around 8:30am, CHC declared four patients to have been stabilized; one patient was released; and one was confirmed in critical condition. At 9:20am, the lone fatality was moved to the hospital morgue.
Tagabuel told reporters that communication is ongoing with the U.S. Coast Guard regarding the possible transfer of the pilot to Guam.
Hospital administrator Karen Buettner disclosed that as soon as the crash report was received, the emergency staff was activated, with doctors and nurses immediately attending to the victims. Saipan Tribune learned that at least seven doctors were at the ICU and ER.
Also at the hospital to check on the victims was Marianas Visitors Authority (MVA) managing director Perry Tenorio, who described yesterday's incident as tragic. Tenorio said MVA is collecting all information they can and sharing them with offshore offices to give updates to relatives of the victims in China.
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