FLORIDA – A Boeing 737 plane arriving from the Guantanamo Bay military station in Cuba with 143 people aboard went off the runway and into the St. Johns River in Florida on Friday night, authorities said.
The plane was in shallow water and not submerged in the river in Jacksonville, the Sheriff’s Office said. There were no fatalities.
All 136 passengers and seven crew members on board have been accounted for, the Naval Air Station Jacksonville said. Twenty-one people were transported to hospitals in good condition, according to Officer Tom Francis of Jacksonville Fire Rescue.
The safe landing was a miracle, said Capt. Michael Connor, a commanding officer at the station.
“We could be talking about a different story this evening. So there’s a lot to say about the professionalism of the folks that helped the passengers off the airplane,” he said at a news conference early Saturday. “Some of them were coming back to see their families, some of them were continuing on travel to their homes outside of Florida.”
The plane was trying to land
The plane slid off a runway into the river at 9:40 p.m. ET, the Naval Air Station Jacksonville said. It appears to have skidded off the airport runway while trying to land and ended up in the river, WJXT reported.
It was arriving from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay into Naval Air Station Jacksonville and fell into the river at the end of the runway.
David Soucie, a former inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration, described it as a private jet charter. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry had initially called it a commercial flight.
“The fact that they were all brought out of the aircraft safely and no one was hurt says a lot about how the crew reacted to this situation,” Soucie said.
The passengers and crew members were rescued from the wing of the aircraft by firefighters, said Chief Mark Russo of First Coast Navy Fire and Emergency Services. At least 50 firefighters were involved in the effort.
It flew through thunderstorms
Passenger Cheryl Bormann told CNN’s Don Lemon the plane flew through lightning and thunderstorms on the way to Jacksonville.
“As we went down, we had a really hard landing,” the defense attorney said. “And then the plane bounced and screeched and bounced some more … then it came to a complete like crash stop.”
Bormann said they had no idea where they were at first.
“We were in water. We couldn’t tell where we were, whether it was a river or an ocean. There was rain coming down. There was lightning and thunder. And we stood on that wing for a significant period of time. Rescue folks came and eventually someone inflated a life raft that had been on the plane and we began climbing into it. Everybody was helping everybody,” she said.
CNN Meteorologist Derek Van Dam said a “weak tropical disturbance” created scattered thunderstorms across northeastern Florida on Friday evening.
“Flying around or through areas of convection can be dangerous as it can create heavy turbulence in the air and a wet runway leading to the threat of hydroplaning upon landing,” he said.
The White House called to offer help as the situation was developing, the mayor said.
Who was on the plane?
The passengers included military personnel and civilians.
The military often uses charters, so it was likely a “normal military deployment flight,” CNN military analyst Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said.
“It sounds to me like it was likely a unit, it was either deploying or re-deploying out of Guantanamo Bay,” he told CNN’s Don Lemon. “Most Americans think that when military forces move around the globe they’re always in an Air Force jet. That in fact is not the case, most of the time we use civilian charter airplanes.”
The NTSB tweeted that it is sending a “Go Team,” which will investigate with the help of the Naval Air Station.