Florida man aboard Jacksonville flight said passengers were told a delay was due to a mechanical problem

Darwing Silva, of Miami, helped others out of the plane and onto a wing, where they waited for rescuers.
A charter plane carrying 143 people and traveling from Cuba to north Florida sits in a river at the end of a runway, Saturday, May 4, 2019 in Jacksonville, Fla. The Boeing 737 arriving at Naval Air Station Jacksonville from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with 136 passengers and seven aircrew slid off the runway Friday night into the St. Johns River, a NAS Jacksonville news release said. [Associated Press]
A charter plane carrying 143 people and traveling from Cuba to north Florida sits in a river at the end of a runway, Saturday, May 4, 2019 in Jacksonville, Fla. The Boeing 737 arriving at Naval Air Station Jacksonville from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with 136 passengers and seven aircrew slid off the runway Friday night into the St. Johns River, a NAS Jacksonville news release said. [Associated Press]
Published May 4
Updated May 5

Hours before a military-chartered plane from Guantanamo Bay skidded off a Jacksonville runway and into a river, passengers were warned that their aircraft might not be fit for takeoff, according to a Florida man who said he was on the plane.

Darwing Silva, of Miami, said he was one of the 136 passengers on board the Boeing 737 plane Friday night. No one was killed.

Silva, 35, said he was coming home from a work trip. He works for a Fort Lauderdale roofing company that has a contract to build a school in Guantanamo Bay, he said, and he told the Tampa Bay Times that his flight was delayed and that initially passengers were told the issue had to do with the air conditioning.

Silva said that eventually the plane was cleared to go, but with the warning to passengers that there wouldn’t be air conditioning. Eager to get home to Miami, he said, he and his coworkers boarded the hot plane.

Silva said he took a seat in the exit row and agreed to open the door in the event of an emergency. There was no indication anything was wrong during the flight, he said, until they arrived.

At first, the landing was like countless others he’d been on, Silva said, except the plane never stopped.

Silva said he looked out the window and saw a blur of airport lights zip by at high speed. Then, “there was the biggest bang,” he said, the loudest sound he’d ever heard.

According to the Associated Press, the plane landed hard, then bounced and swerved as the pilot struggled to control it amid thunder and lightning, ultimately coming to a crashing halt in the St. Johns River at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

The force of the collision caused Silva to bounce and hit the roof, he said. He looked down and his ankles were in water, he said, and he heard someone yell, “Fuel!”

The yell made Silva remember that he was in the exit row. He said he opened the exit door, stepped out onto the wing, looked down and saw water. He felt terrified, he said, because he isn’t a strong swimmer. He said he leaned back into the plane, grabbed his life jacket, put it on and helped others file out onto the wing and wait for rescue.

Help soon arrived, he said, and he was the last person on his side of the plane into a lifeboat. After everyone was checked out, he said he and his three coworkers piled into two cars and took shifts driving the 5-hour trip home to Miami.

Authorities said everyone on board emerged without critical injuries Friday night.

The NTSB sent a team of investigators Saturday to the crash site in the St. John’s River in north Florida, where the aircraft was still partially submerged in shallow water and its nose cone was sliced off, apparently from the impact

Three animals that were on the plane — two cats and a dog — were not accounted for and are presumed dead, said Capt. Michael Connor, Naval Air Station Jacksonville’s commander. A navy statement early Saturday offered “hearts and prayers” to their owners said safety issues prevented rescuers from immediately retrieving the animals.

Read more: The Latest: NTSB says no pets survived on plane in Jacksonville river

The flight was a regular charter run by Miami Air International, which has many military contracts, including weekly flights between the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Jacksonville air station as well as Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The company didn’t immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press.

Among those on board the flight was Cheryl Bormann, a defense attorney, who also described the chaotic landing.

The plane “literally hit the ground and then it bounced. It was clear that the pilot did not have complete control of the plane because it bounced some more, it swerved and tilted left and right,” she told CNN. “The pilot was trying to control it but couldn’t, and then all of a sudden it smashed into something.”

Team members recovered the plane’s flight data recorder Saturday.

It wasn’t immediately clear how long it would take to remove the plane from the river. Capt. Michael Connor, the commanding officer of NAS Jacksonville, said the landing gear appeared to be resting on the riverbed, making it unlikely for the aircraft to float away. He said crews began working to contain any jet fuel leaks almost immediately after securing the passengers’ safety.

Contact Bethany Barnes at bbarnes@tampabay.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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