Amid speculation, confusion and conflicting accounts of Air Niugini Flight 73’s crash in Chuuk on Sept. 28, what stood out the most were the selfless acts and heroism of the local fishermen and U.S. sailors who came to the passengers’ rescue, according to Bill Jaynes, a journalist who was among the passengers.
It was one of everyone’s worst nightmares: You’re a passenger on the plane expecting to reach your destination without any incident. Next thing you know, the plane is crashing into the ocean, and water starts flowing in. And you find yourself in a life-threatening emergency.
Bill Jaynes (Photo courtesy of Kalio Edwin)
That was the situation that Jaynes, along with 46 other passengers and crew, found himself in while approaching landing at Chuuk’s Weno airport on Air Niugini flight 73.
Jaynes, who is based in Pohnpei and frequently travels to Chuuk, recognized the typical flight path on arrival while landing on runway 4, to the northeast. He could see landmarks, including the well-known “Truk Stop” dock. They made a “gradual descent,” as he watched the vapor trails emanating from the wingtip. But as soon as he noticed, the plane was “extremely low,” there was a slight dip, and then the Boeing 737-800 slammed into the water. short of the runway.
“I thought we had just had the hardest landing on the runway that I had ever experienced,” Jaynes said in a phone interview with the Pacific Island Times.
But, sitting on the right side of the aisle near the rear, he later noticed a hole on the left side of the plane and water started flowing inside from the front, and from the hole.
In knee-deep water, he stood up and headed toward the exit assisting injured passengers to get off the plane first.
Most of the passengers were cooperative, making the evacuation process ran quite smoothly, but some attempted to crawl over seats in order to get out as soon as possible. The flight attendants yelled at the passengers to calm down, which seemed to Jaynes to have the opposite effect.
According to Jaynes, almost everyone was rescued and brought safety to the shore, thanks to the help of local fisherman, U.S. Navy personnel and assisting passengers.
At first, it was reported that everyone of the flight was accounted for Unfortunately, on Saturday, a day later, Air Niugini issued a statement that one passenger was discovered missing. Several days later, his body was discovered by divers and recovered from the scene. An accident became fatal and a tragedy.
A passenger from Papua New Guinea, with emergency training in sea rescues, along with another passenger, Adam Milburn, whom Jaynes describes as a “hero,” opened the emergency exit over the wing, and assisted passengers into a raft next to the wing. The raft was deployed from the airplane by these passengers, along with the help of Milburn’s spouse.
Immediately after entering the raft, Jaynes said many Chuukese fishermen arrived in their signature small boats to assist in the emergency rescue. Jaynes had nothing but praise for the locals assisting and saving lives and said, he “will never forget their response.”
Along with these Chuukese heroes were U.S. Navy personnel who also arrived at the site and assisted in the rescue.
Jaynes pointed out that Navy personnel along with Adam Milburn heroically entered the flooding and sinking aircraft to search for any more passengers or crew who may have still been aboard. At the time, no one was found. Initial statements from the airline had said that all passengers and crew were accounted for. As we now know, one man from Indonesia tragically lost his life.
The surviving passengers and crew were taken quickly to the local hospital were many health care workers and volunteers assisted in evaluating and attending the injured.
Again, Jaynes had nothing but praise for their work and assistance. The Chuukese emergency workers and the Red Cross came together and did “a great job, and I have nothing but good things to say about it.”
Although, Jaynes sustained a minor injury from the accident after hitting his head on the seat in front of him, the medical staff checked him out to make sure he didn’t have further more serious injuries. There were others with more severe injuries, including broken bones. Several have since been evacuated to Guam since the accident.
Many of the passengers ended up at the Truk Stop hotel for the night, the same place Jaynes had casually observed from the air.
But now it was late, he had wet clothes, and the airline only provided a few hundred dollars per passenger for emergency money. With nowhere to shop that night, he was able to borrow a pair of shorts from a friend at the Hotel.
It’s unclear if everyone was able to at least get into dry clothes for the next several days. There was also a mix up where Air Niugini forget to pay for Jaynes' flight back to Ponhpei on another airline, but he finally made it home to his wife.
In view of all the speculation, conflicting accounts and fuzzy memories from other witnesses, Jaynes wanted to make sure the truth got out as accurately as he he could remember.
As he relayed his story to me, the biggest point he wanted to make was that the Chuukese fishermen deserve praise for their quick response that day and that they made a difference. They certainly helped to avoid a greater tragedy.
As for the 737 itself? It slowly sank beneath the surface and now rests in about 90 feet of water. Most of the black boxes have been recovered, except for the Cockpit Voice Recorder, but it will be many months before investigators can piece together an accurate and comprehensive report on what happened and why. For now, we will leave the speculation to others and await the hard evidence.