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Small plane slides off runway during landing

A single-engine airplane skidded off a runway at Albert Whitted Municipal Airport during Friday's storms, landing in Tampa Bay.

The pilot, A. Dana Tessler, and his passenger, Elizabeth G. Repaal, were not hurt. They were pulled from the water by the U.S. Coast Guard.

"I'm just thankful to be okay," said Repaal, a 40-year-old Palm Harbor resident and worker's compensation attorney, who was on her way to Fort Myers to take a deposition.

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the cause of the crash, which occurred in heavy rain and 35 mph winds before noon on the north-south runway.

Tessler, 41, a pilot for Bay Air Flying Service Inc., took off from Albert Whitted and reached Apollo Beach, where he decided to turn the Piper Archer around because of bad weather, Coast Guard officials said.

Also, according to the Coast Guard, a gauge, which measures speed but does not usually affect aircraft operations, was not working properly.

On the approach to the downtown St. Petersburg airport, with visibility at 500 yards, Tessler touched down on the end of the runway, but somehow lost control of the plane, which went into a one-quarter turn.

"He couldn't see well," said Coast Guard Lt. A.J. McGee, who added that Tessler was forced to land using instruments because of the weather.

Tessler was able to keep the nose of the plane up, and instead of doing a nose-dive, the plane landed on its belly in 10 to 12 feet of water.

"That man saved our lives," Repaal said of Tessler from her Palm Harbor home. "He got us out of the plane without panicking."

Both Tessler and Repaal were evaluated at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg and released.

Repaal said she had bruises on her shoulders and hips, but for the most part, she said she was okay.

Tessler, who lives on Treasure Island, declined to talk about the crash.

After they crashed in the water, Tessler and Repaal were rescued by U.S. Coast Guard officers, who initially thought the loud thud was thunder.

Seaman Lisha Jones, who was in a meeting of female officers on the base adjacent to the airport, ran outside and saw the plane bobbing in the water. She and another female officer were lowered off a sea wall, where 20 other women from the meeting watched. Jones swam out 50 feet with a life ring to the plane. A 21-foot Coast Guard boat arrived shortly after.

"They were just in shock, in awe. They couldn't believe it," Jones, a 21-year-old former ocean lifeguard, said of Tessler and Repaal.

On the boat, Repaal said Tessler told her he was sorry.

"I'm not ready to die yet," Repaal told him. "I just got married."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this story.

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