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Breaking News

Nine Injured, One Dead Found Off Key West Coast

Aired September 19, 2000 - 2:02 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Coast Guard crews are scouring the Florida Straits this afternoon for a small Cuban plane.

As we just reported, it appears a U.S. AWACS plane has detected a beacon in the search area. U.S. officials have said as many as 18 people may have been aboard the plane. It disappeared from radar about three hours ago and the circumstances of the flight, whether a hijacking or a dash for freedom, remain a mystery, as do many of the details.

CNN's aviation expert Carl Rochelle joins us from Washington with the latest about what we're hearing -- Carl.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, the interesting thing is that they believe that they have heard that emergency locater transmitter beacon.

You know, I was not sure whether the plane would be equipped with one or not, but that is likely what they are hearing. It puts out a down-swept signal, a sort of a "whoop"-type sound and it repeats it constantly on a couple of different frequencies, and they are both emergency guard frequencies that both the military and civilian pilots, airliners all listen to.

If they have found that, in fact, what they can do is triangulate it. They'll look at it from a couple different angles and they will be able to fly directly across the area where that beacon has been heard.

We told you earlier today that the Coast Guard had flown over the area where the plane was last seen on radar and saw no wreckage and no sign of the plane, no debris on the water there.

Make sure you take a look back at that airplane a little bit. Let me tell you a little more about it. It's an An-2, Antonov. It's made by Russia, it is a relic of the Soviet Union, that's where this plane was first designed.

It is a single-engine biplane and it carries passengers. It can carry 20 passengers; it's a reasonably large-sized airplane for a single-engine airplane. It's a utility airplane used to ferry people around, and that may be the role of this particular aircraft.

Some confusion about exactly where it came from. One story is that it's an agriculture ministry aircraft used to ferry people around, although some reports from our producer in Cuba that the plane was used for crop-dusting operations. Putting crop-duster hoppers in it would, sort of, cut down on the number of people you could put inside.

So it remains to be seen exactly what the configuration of that particular airplane was, but Havana air traffic control at 8:45 this morning told the U.S. authorities, told the Miami FAA aircraft center -- air traffic control center, that the airplane had departed the area, that it had been hijacked, that it was headed in a northwesterly to westerly direction, generally in the direction of the United States.

And from them is where the information came. The initial report that I was given was that there were 16 people onboard, possibly 18 because of the crew also being onboard the aircraft. The report was that the airplane had been hijacked. It disappeared from the FAA radar scopes.

Now, when the word came out that that airplane had flown away on an apparent hijack, military jets were scrambled to take a look at it, and Admiral Craig Quigley, the Pentagon spokesman explains why.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG QUIGLEY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: It is an area that -- within which, closer to the continental United States from that area, we take particular interest; and having a clear understanding and an identity of aircraft that are flying in airspace that we consider more sensitive than others.

It's still international airspace, but it's something that's clearly close, and we just want to make sure we know who's out there and what their intentions are.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROCHELLE: But the military jets never did see the airplane. The only indication that the airplane was out there was the report from the Cuban government, and it did disappear off of the radar scopes -- Lou, Natalie.

ALLEN: And, Carl, how long will this signal continue?

ROCHELLE: The signal should continue, if the batteries are up on that as they should be, probably at least 48 hours, perhaps even longer than that. Certainly enough time for them to detect it.

It is triggered by the G-forces of a crash. Some of them are triggered by contact with salt water. As long as it remains intact, it will send a signal; certainly for long enough for them to find the airplane and the area where it went down.

It can, by the way, be triggered manually from inside the aircraft if it is not triggered by the forces of an impact. In other words, if it was a soft landing, someone could just reach over and flip the switch and turn it on and it could be putting out a signal that way.

So, need to get somebody on scene to see exactly what's going on -- Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, we'll let you work the phones and get more information. Thank you, Carl.

Now to Lou.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello.

CNN's Susan Candiotti is at the airport in Opa-Locka, Florida, not far from Miami.

Susan, how does Opa-Locka factor in to this story?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is where all of the assets that left from this area left from. That is, the U.S. Coast Guard station in Opa-Locka, Florida. So as soon as those reports came in, this is where those aircraft scrambled from.

Those assets include three helicopters that left from here and a Falcon jet. Then there was also a C-130 involved out of Clearwater, Florida, as you may already know. All of their activities are being monitored from here at this hour, as well as from Miami center and from the Coast Guard group in Key West, Florida, where one of the Coast Guard's Cutters is operating from.

Within the hour the commander from the U.S. Coast guard here, the seventh district, that is Rear Admiral Thad Allen, arrived on the scene, and he has been involved in a briefing here to, of course, be included on the monitoring of the situation.

And we talked to some of the Coast Guard authorities here about how long those aircraft can stay out; for example, I'm told that the Falcon jet can fly for about four hours without refueling and those helicopters for two hours at a time. When they're out there, the closest place they would land for refueling before going back out again is, of course, Key West, Florida.

And we spoke with Lieutenant Prince Neal, who described for me a typical search pattern.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. PRINCE NEAL, U.S. COAST GUARD: A vector sea-air is the search and rescue pattern that we go to the last known position, go out 12 miles, do a 60 degree turn, go out 12 miles and come back across the last know position. So we're almost doing a triangle.

And we do three of those triangles, covering that last known position; it kind of covers an area to where we think these last survivors -- the position of the survivors -- where we think they're going to be at.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CANDIOTTI: Indeed, if any survivors are found, it is most likely they would be flown to Key West, Florida because, of course, that is the closest spot. However, they might also be taken to Miami, Florida. That is everyone's hope of course, that survivors will be found.

Again, these authorities will be monitoring the situation and it is not uncommon for the U.S. Coast Guard group here, based in Opa- Locka, to work hand-in-hand with the Cuban navy. We have been there on many occasions where, for example, a report might come in from the Cuban coast guard about some migrants or suspected smuggling operation; that information arrives here to both Miami and here at Opa-Locka, and they will put up a Falcon jet, for example, to go out and search for any boats that might be in distress.

So in this case, of course, they are looking for an aircraft -- Lou.

WATERS: Susan, now that we have received word that a beacon is being heard from the search area, how does that, if at all, reconfigure this search and rescue operation of the Coast Guard?

CANDIOTTI: Well, the Coast Guard tells me that they're working hand-in-hand with any and all information that they get in. So, if there is any information that they receive regarding that beacon that moves the operation to another search area then, of course, they'll make the necessary adjustments.

As I'm sure Carl already reported, there are two search areas that they're looking at and, so, as these people get more information on this, then, they'll also pass it on to us.

WATERS: OK, Susan Candiotti at Opa-Locka Airport.

We now have on the line, from our bureau in Miami, Mark Potter who has some new information on the story.

Mark, what do you got?

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, there's some breaking information that we just got from the U.S. Coast Guard office in Miami. This coming from Petty Officer Mike Brock (ph), who tells us that 10 people have been hauled up by a motor vessel 180 miles south of Key West.

Nine injured, one dead, we are told. They were found at 1:45 Eastern time. Again, 180 miles south of Key West.

The Coast Guard says that they are all aboard, now, a vessel called the Chios Dream, a motor vessel. They were found 180 miles south of Key West at these coordinates: 22 degrees, 20 minutes north, 85 degrees 35 minutes west. Again, 10 people, nine of them injured, one dead, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard is sending a C-130 aircraft into the area, a cutter, a 110-foot Cutter, the Monhegan, is also headed in that direction, and a Jayhawk helicopter is taking off from Key West, now, to transport these people to medical care.

They cannot confirm exactly that these are the people from the missing aircraft, but they are working under that presumption; and so this is the latest information -- this just comes from the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami.

WATERS: If they are the people missing from the aircraft that we have been talking about, Mark, that would negate what the Cuban government has been saying about the passenger load; they had said 16, plus a crew of two.

POTTER: Well, that may not negate that number. This is how many have been found; 10 people, nine injured, one dead. That does not mean that -- there may still have been others that were not recovered.

WATERS: Was there any mention of the plane itself?

POTTER: No, not at this time. Just that the people were found in the waters 180 miles south of Key West. The information is sketchy, but this is, of course, a dramatic new development, we'll keep on it, and as soon as we have anything else we'll get right back to you with it.

WATERS: All right, Mark, we'll get back to you. That's Mark Potter following the stories, working the phones in Miami, talking with the Coast Guard.

Nine survivors, plucked from the water, one dead. The assumption is that these would be the people from the aircraft we've been reporting on, that they've been looking for since 8:45 this morning when the Cuban government reported to FAA -- reported a plane hijacked out of Cuba.

This latest operation with the people pulled from the waters 180 miles south of Key West. The survivors now are onboard the Chios Dream, a Coast Guard Cutter.

We do not know if the nine injured, one dead are from the aircraft, it's presumed they are, but we're continuing to follow this story and we are certainly going to keep pace with it.

As soon as we know more we'll pass it right along to you.

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