A ‘Miracle’ of Survival
As Tourist Seaplane Crashes in West Bay Community Effort Saves Lives

February 2nd, 2012
by Thomas Tomczyk

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First rescuers jump into water to help to rescue the four people from the crashed seaplane.  (Photo courtesy of Patrick Forseth, Tranquility Bay, Trujillo)

First rescuers jump into water to help to rescue the four people from the crashed seaplane. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Forseth, Tranquility Bay, Trujillo)

It was a sunny afternoon. West Bay was full of cruise ship tourists, laughter, sunbathers. It was a perfect day to spend on the beach, diving, parasailing, or even taking a seaplane ride to sightsee the island.

On Wednesday, January 11, around 1:30 pm, the seaplane plane picked up passengers on West Bay beach. The yellow 2001 “Air Camera” seaplane taxied out to begin what was supposed to be a routine 15-minute fun-flight around Roatan.

Andy Atkins, 43, was seated right behind the pilot. His wife Jenny, 33, with their four-year-old son Logan on her lap, was sitting in the rear. The Atkins recently purchased a condo at Infinity Bay and were enjoying their holiday from cold Dallas where they practice law.

Andy had flown on a Bay Islands Airways Seaplane Adventure (BIASA) scenic flight a couple months before and was looking forward to sharing another experience with his wife and son. In his emails confirming the reservations Andy mentioned that he wanted to take his son along. This was occasionally done by BIASA, and the child was considered a “lap passenger.”

Dozens of people watched as the pilot Bob Brown readied the plane on West Bay beach and then taxied for the flight. Larry Forseth and his son Patrick had seen the plane on the beach moments before and had watched it fly overhead as it neared West Bay point. “We could hear the passengers scream in joy as they flew over us. They were really having a great time,” said Larry.

This idyllic scene was all to change just a moment later. A few seconds after passing over the parasailing boat, the seaplane lost power in its left engine flying south in a straight line. Pilot Bob realized he had lost an engine and prepared to do an emergency descent and landing.

What resulted next was a combination of several factors, occurring within in a matter of a couple seconds.
As the plane with engine loss approached West Bay point, a gust of wind from the east jerked the plane and turned it to the right. Controlling a plane at low speeds, with engine loss and low altitude is specifically difficult as the plane is not very responsive to controls. It gives the pilot minimal reaction time to compensate for the loss of engine pull and to adjust the controls of the plane.

The plane banked to the right and downward and hit the water with such impact that, according to bystander Patrick, it flipped three times before resting upside-down.

Its three passengers and pilot were trapped upside down with seatbelts securing them to a plane that was now floating only thanks to one pontoon. The other pontoon had broken on impact and was filling with water. “I thought they were dead,” said Larry, himself a retired Air Canada pilot.

The plane was approximately 300 yards away from the south end of West Bay beach. “The plane was upside down, mostly submerged,” described Patrick of the scene.

It seems that no one, even not the baby, lost consciousness during the impact. Jenny somehow managed to keep hold of her son in her lap. She later told Larry that she remembered hands appearing from the surface and she handed her son into the hands. Then, upside down and submerged, she passed out.

Pilot Bob says he got out of his harness first, then dived in to help Andy release his seat restraint. “I was hoping to have him help with his wife and kid,” said Bob. Bob then dived again and picked up the child from the hands of his mother. Bob handed the child to Andy and yet again dived to free the last remaining passenger. By that time the woman had passed out and Bob had to swim her body to the surface by himself.

Atkins however gives much credit of the rescue to himself. “I dove back under looking for them, came back, got air, went immediately back down,” Andy Atkins, told NBC Dallas/Fort Worth. “I came up and I had Logan in my arms and, by the time I got to the surface, Jenny was also at the surface with the pilot holding her.” Atkins had not responded to emails sent to him by Bay Islands Voice.

“Within two minutes we were at the scene. We were first and soon five boats were there,” said Patrick. When the parasailing boat arrived on the scene, both pilot Bob and passenger Andy were resting on the plane’s turned chassis, next to the one pontoon that remained inflated and kept the seaplane afloat. Andy was holding onto his unconscious four-year-old son and Bob, visibly exhausted, barely held onto Jenny’s limp body. . “Is everyone out?” shouted someone from the boat. “They are all out,” shouted back Andy from the floating plane.

“If we had gotten there just a minute or two later, I think the woman would have just slipped away and drowned,” said Larry. “He [Bob] was tired, weak, trying to hold her head above water,” said Larry.

Unconscious, Jenny Atkins is being taken on board of Utila Aggressor.  (Photo courtesy of Utila Aggressor)

Unconscious, Jenny Atkins is being taken on board of Utila Aggressor. (Photo courtesy of Utila Aggressor)

Four passengers of the parasailing boat jumped in to rescue the five. “The woman was not breathing. She was foaming at the mouth. I remember her looking right at me, then her eyes just rolled back as I swam with her to the [Utila Aggressor] boat,” said Larry, who was one of three people who swam with Jenny Atkins to Utila Aggressor.

Utila Aggressor, a 110-foot live-aboard dive boat with 16 passengers and seven crew, happened to be in the area and had two passengers who were doctors. “The yacht being there was huge,” says Larry, adding that everyone involved acted quickly and efficiently.

Utila Aggressor had just finished a dive in West Bay and was about to relocate when the plane hit the water. From 100 meters away several passengers on board the boat witnessed the crash. Captain Nestor Vidotto and his crew of six and two passenger-doctors moved the boat with their dive platform to just meters from the overturned plane.

The two unconscious victims were not breathing for probably around three-four minutes. “The woman was practically dead,” said Aggressor’s Captain Vidotto. Both unconscious victims had their eyes rolled back and were foaming at the mouth.

According to Patrick, for a few moments the scene was chaotic, bordering on pandemonium. While the woman was being tended to on board the Aggressor, the four-year-old Logan was receiving first aid on board the parasailing boat. “The father was yelling, ‘Is my baby all right.'” said Patrick.

Cuny Miller from another parasailing boat stepped on board and administered CPR to the boy. “He had blue lips. He was foaming at the mouth,” said Cuny. The boy had swallowed some water, but after a minute he coughed it out and looked up in a daze.

Cuny Miller gives first aid to the four-year-old on board the parasailing boat. (Photo courtesy of Utila Aggressor)

Cuny Miller gives first aid to the four-year-old on board the parasailing boat. (Photo courtesy of Utila Aggressor)

Jenny Atkins was in a more serious situation. “Her eyes were rolling around. It was weird. She was foaming at the mouth; she had obviously swallowed a lot of water,” said Larry. It took a couple minutes to revive her, but she eventually came to. She was dazed, with broken ribs and water in her lungs, but she was alive.

“We decided to take her [on our boat] to AKR. [We suspected] she had broken ribs and bouncing around in a small boat would not help,” said Captain Vidotto. According to Captain Vidotto, on insistence of Andy, the two doctors from Aggressor remained in AKR as his wife received treatment for several hours.

While the Atkins were tended to at the local clinic, pilot Bob stayed with the plane, wanting to have the plane towed to shore. “The shock was settling in for me,” said Bob about the experience.

“I was trying to talk to him and reassure him,” said Larry. “I could tell he loved this airplane. He had a real passion for it. We had seen that as he talked about it while on West Bay beach… That poor pilot. He must be traumatized by this near death experience.”

The passengers of Utila Aggressor did no more diving that day. Nor did the clients on board the parasailing boat do any more parasailing. Everyone had had enough excitement for a day.

A flight on a private plane of Troy Bodden, owner of Utila Agressor, was arranged to take the three to San Pedro Sula where Jenny and Logan checked into CEMESA hospital. They spent several days there for precautionary measures and underwent exams. But according to Heather Donnoly, Bob’s daughter and co-owner of BIASA, “they didn’t even have a scratch.”

The entire cost, $14,000, associated with the Atkins’ treatment was paid by the Donnolys. “We paid AKR, the airplane to San Pedro, an ambulance from the airport, CEMESA hospital, flight change fees. It was $14,000,” said Heather.

“They seem to have recovered very nicely,” said Larry, who saw the Atkins a few days after the accident on Roatan. “It was a terrible accident and, obviously, we’re not going to be going up in any planes like that again,” Andy Atkins told an NBC station in Dallas Fort Worth.

Boats gather around the crashed plane.  (Photo courtesy of Patrick Forseth, Tranquility Bay, Trujillo)

Boats gather around the crashed plane. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Forseth, Tranquility Bay, Trujillo)

While the Atkins were in San Pedro Sula, pilot Bob and his family were going through their own drama. “Seven armed police came to our home wanting to take my father to the police station. We refused. They had no documents, no warrant,” says Heather. The armed police spent the night at Bob’s home, which he shares with his daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. But the officers left after two days.

Bob Brown, 67, has been flying airplanes since he was 13. That is when he got his first airplane. Bob spent 38 years flying as a commercial pilot for APT. Seven years ago, with his daughter Heather and son-in-law Clay Donnoly, the family began a seaplane flight charter business.

Bob says that in all his career he’s had one “gear-up” landing, which was the biggest emergency until the seaplane accident. According to Heather, in the 5,000 flights the company has completed on Roatan, there were no serious emergencies. While the ‘Air Camera’ seaplane is experimental and cannot carry commercial passengers in the US, in Honduras and other countries it can and has been licensed for seven years. “Even the SOSA planes you fly on here are experimental,” says Heather.

Upon his return to the US, Andy has given numerous TV interviews in Texas and nationally. “This is a miracle that has been made into a circus,” says Heather about the media hype which has surrounded the accident.

The Brown-Donnoly family has been hurt financially, spiritually and psychologically. Now they are taking the time to grieve the loss of their livelihood, amid rumors that have circulated about the accident. “It’s like if you lost a limb. We are traumatized and we are trying to put ourselves together,” said Heather about the accident. The family has made a conscious decision to fold the business and are deciding what to do next. They have a beautiful home here, one of Heather’s two children was born on the island, and the family would like to continue their life on Roatan. [/private]

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