HONOLULU (AP) — When Coast Guard rescuers flew to waters near the Hawaiian island of Molokai to the scene of a small plane crash, they found smoking flares from the Navy, nine people floating in yellow life vests and debris scattered across a half-mile of ocean waters with choppy waves about six feet high. The only thing missing — the single-engine plane itself.
"There was nothing recognizable immediately as aircraft debris, just general debris in the water," U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Weston Red Elk said. "I'm not sure at what point the main body of the aircraft submerged, but it was not present when we got there."
Red Elk's team of rescue swimmers and pilots maneuvered two helicopters and an HC-130 airplane about 50 feet above the water, using the flares as a guide to locate two clusters of passengers, eventually rescuing them with Maui Fire personnel. One passenger swam the long distance to shore, the pilot and others went to hospitals with injuries that weren't serious. Only one passenger died.
As the rescue started, Rescue Swimmer Mark Peer said he lowered himself toward a man about 100 yards from the plane who looked to be in his 70s. As he swam to the passenger, the man wasn't panicking, Peer said.
"He was happy to see us. Just kind of grabbed my arm and gave me a thumbs up," Peer said.
The next passenger Peer tried to save, Hawaii Health Director Loretta Fuddy, was not responsive and he couldn't find a pulse.
"It was not a good feeling," he said.
In the final moments of her life before rescuers arrived, Fuddy clung to the hand of her deputy while floating in the water.
Fuddy, who gained notoriety in 2011 for her role in making President Barack Obama's birth certificate public, held hands with deputy director Keith Yamamoto as he tried to help her relax, said the Rev. Patrick Killilea, who consoled Yamamoto after the ordeal.
"He recounted how he said he helped Loretta into her life jacket and he held her hand for some time," the priest said. "They were all floating together and she let go and there was no response from her."
The people in the water when rescuers arrived seemed calm while floating on their backs, Coast Guard rescuers said.
"I'm sure they were exhausted," Aviation Survival Technician P.J. Ornot said.
The crash occurred when the single engine of the 2002 Cessna Grand Caravan failed soon after it took off from Molokai and made its turn toward Honolulu, said Richard Schuman, owner of Makani Kai Air, operator of the plane.
Schuman said the pilot did his best to get the plane down safely and keep the passengers together in the water. Asked how they survived, he responded: "Will."
"There's only one engine on that plane, and when it quits on you, you just have to deal with it in that moment," he said.
It was unclear Thursday how Fuddy, 65, was killed and how the others survived. Molokai General Hospital Vice President Randy Lite said Fuddy's body will remain at the hospital until an autopsy is conducted.
Schuman said he did not yet know why the engine failed because he has not been able to see the plane. The aircraft had no previous problems, he said.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said investigators planned to speak with the pilot, whose name was not released, and some passengers about the crash.
However, the location of the wreckage, combined with wind and wave conditions, likely means it won't be recovered, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie said Fuddy was loved and respected. About 100 Health Department employees lined up to pay their respects to Fuddy's family members who attended a gathering in her memory at the department's parking lot Thursday.
Immediately after the crash, Fuddy's body was taken to a care home at Kalaupapa, where Killilea, the pastor of Kalaupapa's St. Francis Church, said he made the sign of the cross on her forehead as she lay on a gurney surrounded by nurses and the distraught Yamamoto.
Three survivors were transported by helicopter to a Honolulu hospital, two declined to be medically evacuated, and three were taken to Molokai General Hospital with minor injuries, officials said.
Molokai hospital staff helped them dry their clothing and gave them a place to rest until they could get rooms at the island's only hotel, Lite said. They checked out of the hotel early Thursday.
No further information was available on the other passengers or the pilot.
Fuddy and Yamamoto were on the flight after an annual visit to Kalaupapa, where the state exiled leprosy patients until 1969. The area is accessible only by plane or mule.
The leprosy settlement on Kalaupapa is still run by the Health Department, though only a few former leprosy patients continue to live there.
The NTSB had no records of accidents for Makani Kai Air dating back to 1962, while the FAA had records of only two minor incidents that resulted in no injuries.
In 2012, a piece of trash got caught in a helicopter causing the pilot to abort takeoff. In 1998, a pilot heard a noise in the main rotor and landed in an open field with no injuries.
Associated Press writers Oskar Garcia and Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.