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3 rescued after plane from Tampa crashes off southwest Florida coast

Coast Guard and emergency workers carry one of the survivors from a Mooney 20 single-engine plane that crashed Friday night about 5 miles southwest of Cape Sable.

Special to the Times

Coast Guard and emergency workers carry one of the survivors from a Mooney 20 single-engine plane that crashed Friday night about 5 miles southwest of Cape Sable.

TAMPA — Three people were pulled from the Gulf of Mexico Saturday morning with only minor injuries and jellyfish stings after their small plane bound for Marathon crashed the night before.

"It was a miracle," said Michelle Schwartz, sister of crash survivor Whitney Page of Tampa. "I'm so thankful that they were found alive. That just doesn't happen with small plane crashes."

Page, 26, her husband, Ben Page, 31, and her stepfather, Peeter Jakobson, 61, took off in the Mooney 20 single-engine craft from Tampa Executive Airport just after 9 p.m. Friday, Schwartz said.

Ten minutes later Jakobson, the plane's pilot, made a distress call saying the plane lost power and he was going to have to try a controlled water landing, said Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The plane, registered to Jake Aviation Corp. in Wilmington, Del., glided down into the water 5 miles southwest of Cape Sable, the Coast Guard reported.

Cape Sable is northwest of the Keys on the southwestern edge of Everglades National Park.

The Coast Guard coordinated a multi-agency search of a 2,200-square-mile area Friday night and Saturday morning, using aircraft from Miami and Clearwater.

Virtually unharmed, the three survivors held fast to a lobster trap buoy and two personal flotation devices — for 12 hours — until a Coast Guard crew found them Saturday. "Ben said there were plenty of jellyfish all around them all night — keeping the sharks away," Schwartz, 46, of Madeira Beach said.

Schwartz first heard of the crash from her boyfriend, who saw it on a Facebook page when he got up at 5:30 a.m. She turned to the Web site to get more information and began calling family members for updates.

"There was never any doubt that they were out there somewhere just waiting for us to come and get them," Schwartz said.

Whitney Page is about to graduate from the University of South Florida Medical School in March, following her stepfather into radiology. Jakobson is a radiologist in Marathon, Schwartz said. Ben Page is an electrician.

"These are very smart people," she said. "They grabbed the lobster trap because they knew there would be lobster fishermen who would eventually come looking for that trap. It was a plan."

Then nearly five hours later she got the call: Whitney and Ben were all right.

The three were taken to Fishermen's Hospital in Marathon, where they were treated and released, said Lt. J.G. Matthew Meinhold, a spokesman for the Coast Guard.

Schwartz was ready to shout it from the roof tops. But she took her excitement to Facebook instead. Now they could keep all their plans. Schwartz and the Pages had planned to participate in a leukemia walk in Tampa next month, to honor Ben Page's brother who died of the disease a year ago.

"I said to myself, 'They have to survive. We have to do that walk,' " Schwartz said before bursting into sobs.

But she was most thankful for Jakobson's quick thinking and ability to land the plane on the water, comparing the feat to the Miracle on the Hudson.

"He's a hero," she said. There's no other word for it."

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at rmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3373.

3 rescued after plane from Tampa crashes off southwest Florida coast 10/10/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 11, 2009 12:18am]
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