Sunday, January 21, 2018
Public safety

Pilot didn't see the man and his daughter walking along the beach before he struck them

ENGLEWOOD — The pilot never saw them.

Karl Kokomoor and a friend had taken off from an airport six miles away for a Sunday afternoon of sightseeing. Suddenly, he said, the Piper Cherokee's engine failed. The plane lost altitude. He had seconds to scout an emergency landing. Kokomoor eyed a beach, but it looked filled with people. He diverted to another strip of sand.

At that moment on that same strip of sand, witnesses say, a man and his daughter were on a walk. The nearly silent plane glided in from behind them, its sound drowned out by crashing waves and blowing wind. The nose halted at the water's edge.

Ommy Irizarry, 36, an Army sergeant vacationing with his family from Georgia, died at the scene on Caspersen Beach. A helicopter took the girl to All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine in St. Petersburg. Oceana, who was 9, later died.

Kokomoor and his passenger escaped uninjured.

"I never saw them," Kokomoor, 57, said in a statement on Tuesday. "I am deeply, deeply sorry."

• • •

Those words were read by his minister at Englewood United Methodist. Beside the clergyman, Kokomoor's wife and daughter stood shoulder to shoulder, their eyes glassy. Neither spoke.

Kokomoor was too distraught to even appear.

Seventy miles north and five hours earlier, the family of those who died had released its own statement.

"Our precious Oceana has joined her daddy in heaven," it read. "Oceana was a beautiful, intelligent and kind-hearted little girl. She was a natural artist who loved to learn. She was looking forward to the fourth grade."

Ommy and his wife, Rebecca, were celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary with their children in nearby Siesta Key.

He was a native of Puerto Rico and an Army sergeant first class. Most recently stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., he served two deployments to Iraq.

"He lit up the room whenever he entered and was devoted to his family," the statement said.

Both father and daughter donated their organs.

Tuesday afternoon, a man who said he was Ommy's cousin arrived at Caspersen Beach with other members of his family. They looked for the place where the plane went down, but saw only a damp expanse of sand and a few turtle nests marked with wire and wooden stakes.

The man asked for privacy. He said he had been hounded by reporters.

"There are no words," the family said in its statement, "to describe the suffering we are experiencing."

• • •

An hour before the crash, Meung Doung waved to the Irizarrys. He was on the beach checking turtle nests and handing out shark teeth to tourists.

Doung, 38, later saw the plane.

"I thought to myself, this plane's too low," he said.

Moments later, he heard screams.

Doung, a Venice native, ran to the scene and said he saw Rebecca breathing into her daughter's mouth.

What exactly led to that moment remains unclear. The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration have released few details about their investigation into the crash, which happened about a mile from the Venice Municipal Airport.

On Tuesday, just down the beach from the crash site, families played in the choppy surf and sunned themselves.

As they sat at the water's edge, Connie Conkright, 59, and her two daughters said they were convinced the children who dug a giant hole in the sand next to them at a beach Sunday afternoon were part of the Irizarry's group. Just after lunch, the group left for Caspersen Beach, to the south. Later, when Conkright saw the emergency vehicles, she hoped it didn't involve those kids.

In this place, Conkright said, vacationers quickly bond. For brief moments, as they play in the sand nearby, strangers feel as if they know each other.

Earlier Tuesday, Pete Fettig, 71, searched for shells with his granddaughters on the beach. He dipped a sifter into the water and brought it back up, looking for shark teeth. He showed its contents to his girls, ages 3 and 5.

The crash still haunted him.

"The family was just out here, having a good time, and a plane comes along without any engine noise," Fettig said, "and they couldn't even hear it coming."

Contact Claire Wiseman at [email protected] Follow @clairelwiseman.

     
       
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