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Air Sunshine: Flying Into Danger

July 13, 2003, was a perfect day to fly. At 2:30 in the afternoon, five adults and four children boarded Air Sunshine flight 502 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., en route to Abaco Island in the Bahamas.

But this hour-long flight would take a tragic turn. Correspondent Troy Roberts reports on this story that first aired last December.

"Ideal conditions, couldn't have asked for anything better," says Walt Wilkins of Greenville, S.C. He and his new wife, Donyelle, were seated in the first row. Married less than 24 hours, they were heading off on their honeymoon.

Costa Francisco, sitting next to the pilot, was going on vacation with his family. His wife Bethany, sitting two rows behind him, held their 14-month-old daughter, Zoie.

Diane Diaz, a Jacksonville nurse who grew up on Abaco, was sitting in the back of the plane. She was traveling with her two young children – Andre, 8, and Elisia, 5, and her 4-year-old niece, Diante. Diane's husband planned to join them later.

It was a routine trip, and the passengers settled into their seats for the hour-long flight. But 50 minutes into the flight – as they were approaching Abaco Island – something went terribly wrong.

"I noticed some white smoke coming out of the right engine," recalls Wilkins. "In a matter of seconds, we heard a huge bang. And we sort of jolted to the left. And I looked out the window, and there were two large holes in the engine of the plane."

Hassan Moslemi, an experienced pilot with more than 10,000 hours in the air, tried to reassure his passengers as he sent out a mayday call over the radio.

"He was not panicking. He was very calm. Was very calm. And he was really concentrating on flying that plane," recalls Walt.

Moslemi shut down the right engine and gave the left one full power. The Cesna 402C, designed to fly on only one engine, should have easily made it to the Treasure Cay airport only 20 miles away.

In the last seconds, the pilot was able to lift the plane's nose, preventing it from flipping over and ripping apart. Only six miles from the island, the Cessna crashed into the water.

"It felt like three car wrecks," recalls Costa. "Because the plane bounced three times in rapid succession."

"It was the most awesome sound and force that I've ever felt in my life," recalls Walt. "I looked at Donyelle, and I said, 'Are you OK?' I think she nodded. I said, 'We gotta get outta here.'"

Donyelle and Walt, followed by the Franciscos and the pilot, escaped through the cockpit hatch. At the same time, Diane Diaz, her two children and her niece, got out through the exit door. Incredibly, everyone got out alive before the plane sank. It was gone in 90 seconds.

"It was hard to swim," recalls Walt. "And the swells would come down on your face. And you would swallow salt water."

Making matters even worse, only four of the 10 people got out of the plane in life jackets.

There were no helicopters on Abaco Island, so the emergency call came in to the Coast Guard Air Station in Miami. Within nine minutes, a rescue crew was on board a helicopter heading to the crash site.

Flying the helicopter was Lt. Mark Jackson "They originally said eight people and an infant were on board," he says. "We didn't know if there were any survivors in the water or not."

"I was trying to throw out every possible situation we could encounter. At the same time, we were trying to get the cabin of the aircraft ready," says rescue swimmer Ryan White, who tried to prepare for what lay ahead.

Adding to the crew's concern was the knowledge that it would take more than 80 minutes to get to the crash site - 170 miles away.

"We had basically enough fuel to get out there, stay on the scene for about 10 to 15 minutes, then have to go to Freeport to refuel," says Jackson, who knew they'd have to work quickly in order to rescue the survivors.

Meanwhile, on Abaco Island, Cpl. Ossie Parker, a reservist with the Royal Bahamas Police Force, got the news and rushed to the Treasure Cay Airport to help organize rescuers.

But the effort suddenly became personal when he saw the passenger list, which included the names of Parker's daughter, Diane Diaz, and three of his grandchildren – Andre, Elisia and Diante.

"The inspector came and put his arm on my shoulder. And he said, 'Ozzie, they said everybody's alive and - and on the water. They'll be picked up,'" says Parker.

Back at the crash site, there had been a tragic turn of events. Andre and Elisia were in their life jackets, and their mother, Diane, was floating next to them.

"She is face-down, holding onto the young children. And she did not have a pulse," recalls Walt.

Diane Diaz was dead, her niece, Diante, was missing, and her two young children were all alone. Suddenly, the survivors now wondered if they could hold on long enough to be rescued.

Six miles off the coast of Abaco Island, the survivors of Air Sunshine flight 502 struggled in the rough waters to stay alive.

"I was all over the place," recalls Costa, whose wife, Bethany, held their daughter Zoie up above the waves.

Walt and Donyelle Wilkins comforted the frightened Diaz children as the lifeless body of their mother, Diane, bobbed in the water next to them. But their cousin, Diante, was still missing.

When strong currents separated the group, the Wilkins made sure that they stayed with Andre and Elisia. "We positioned them and turned them so that the mom was to their back, and they were facing us, so they weren't actually looking at her," says Donyelle, who then started asking the children questions to distract them.

With land in sight, the survivors figured fishing boats from Abaco would come quickly. But what the survivors didn't know was that their plane had crashed near the most remote, uninhabited part of the island.

A Coast Guard jet reached the crash site first. Circling overhead and taking pictures, the crew made sure not to lose sight of the survivors.

The jet dropped two rafts into the water, and one of them landed close to the Wilkins. Worried about the children's condition, the couple made a critical decision to leave Andre and Elisia behind while they swam after the raft.

"And we told them we'd be right back. And we got to the lifeboat. And right at that time, we see two choppers in the distance coming our way," says Walt.

Their rescuers had finally arrived - an hour and a half after the plane had crashed. Approaching from the west was the helicopter from Miami, and from the south was a second Coast Guard helicopter from Andros Island in the Bahamas.

"I remember flying, coming in on top of the first group of survivors and just seeing rafts and people in the water. And just saying, 'This is the big one. There's people all over the place down here,'" recalls Lt. Mark Jackson.

As the helicopter hovered 15 feet above the water, rescue swimmer Ryan White jumped in and swam over to the Franciscos and the plane's pilot. Bethany and baby Zoie were the first to be lifted from the water.

"Baby didn't cry. That's what shocked me that there was no emotion from the infant. I mean, obviously, she was in shock," says White.

White was running out of time. As White raced to get the survivors out of the water, Lt. Jackson knew the helicopter was getting dangerously low on fuel.

In less than 12 minutes, Jackson was on his way to Freeport, leaving White behind in the water.

At the same time, rescue swimmer Kurt Peterson, who was on board the second helicopter, jumped into the water and focused his attention on what he assumed were two adults. As he got closer, he says he realized it was two children floating: "I asked them, 'Are you guys OK?' And that's when the little boy told me that his mom was dead."

"As soon as I got 'em off and away from their mom, they grabbed each other. And then I was trying to pull them apart. And, I mean, they just wouldn't let go," adds Peterson.

It wasn't long before Peterson got the Diaz children, the Wilkins and rescue swimmer White into the helicopter. As they were being lifted up, a fishing boat from Abaco finally arrived and pulled the body of Diane Diaz out of the water.

"And the next thing you hear is, 'Oh, my God. There's another kid down there' - a kid that we didn't know about," says White.

It was 4-year-old Diante, Diane's niece. She was floating hundreds of yards from the others, without a life jacket. Within minutes, Peterson was back in the water: "I grabbed her and everything just lolled back. And I just knew right then that, you know, we had to do what we could and get out of there fast."

Peterson carried Diante up into the helicopter and handed her to White, who started doing CPR on her.

"She was lifeless. No breathing, no pulse. It was a long 20 to 25 minutes," says White, who never gave up. "I didn't wanna think it was hopeless."

Back on Abaco, Ossie Parker was waiting anxiously for any information about his daughter and grandchildren.

"We got the report that everybody's been rescued except for one female that had died," says Parker, whose fears became real when they brought in his daughter Diane's body. "I know everybody have to go through once in a life. Losing loved ones. But, you know, this is a child that, you know, snatched from me."

The heartbreaking news got even worse when Parker discovered that Diante was also dead. "So it was just one after the other. But you have to be thankful that even though two was taken away, God allowed two to survive."

"Since July 13th, I've thought about Diana every single day," says Diane Diaz's husband, Elio. "After 12 years of marriage, it's a big change."

Even now, it's difficult for him to talk about the first time he saw his children – Andre and Elisia – after the crash.

"They were crying. And they were telling me how much they miss Mommy. And I started holding `em. And telling `em that Mommy's not here now." says Elio.

In the year since Air Sunshine flight 502 crashed into the waters off the Bahamas, all of the survivors are trying to get on with their lives.

But Bethany and Costa Francisco say the crash still casts a huge shadow. Both Franciscos are in therapy, dealing with the physical and psychological damage, and recurring nightmares.

"I have nightmares every night," says Costa. "Every night."

And they worry about the long-term effect on their daughter, Zoie. "She doesn't like to be around water. She won't go in a pool or a lake," says Bethany.

Salvage crews have recovered the plane's wreckage, and the National Transportation Safety Board is working to determine the cause of the crash.

"We're looking at the engine. We're looking at its maintenance records. We're looking at the capability of the pilot and his records," says Ellen Engleman, who heads the NTSB.

What is Air Sunshine's safety record? "Since 1997, they've had almost half a dozen accidents. One accident did involve two fatalities. So their accident rate would be considered above average," says Engleman. "Above average."

48 Hours tried repeatedly to talk to Air Sunshine officials and pilot Hassan Moslemi, but they refused requests for an interview.

Meanwhile, the families of Diane Diaz and Diante Parker have filed a lawsuit charging the airline and pilot with gross negligence. The Franciscos and the Wilkins have until 2007 to take legal action.

"Allowing a plane like that to blow an engine and not make it on one engine is entirely their fault," says Walt Wilkins.

Back home in Greenville, S.C., Walt and Donyelle Wilkins are hometown heroes for saving Andre and Elisia Diaz.

"We did what any human being would have done in those situations," says Walt.

To help them move past the tragedy, the Wilkins have established an education fund for the Diaz children. "It gives us a feeling that we're ble to do something for those children. And it gives us a sense of healing as well," says Donyelle.

But the healing will take time for Andre and Elisia Diaz as they slowly adjust to life without their mother.

"They have their moments. You know, where they'll start thinking about Diana," says Elio Diaz. "They're adjusting. I just think of the fact that I coulda lost them as well. But they're here. They're here."

Update: The NTSB is expected to issue its final report on the accident later this year. The agency tells 48 Hours that the Cessna's two engines had missed the last required maintenance check at 1,600 hours of flying time. The plane then flew about 800 hours after that.

The NTSB also says that the Federal Aviation Administration had granted the airline and extension on the engine checkup, but the reason for that is unclear. Meanwhile, pending further investigation, the government of the Bahamas has banned all Air Sunshine flights, and that's close to half of the airline's operations.

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