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A charter plane carrying 143 people and traveling from Cuba to north Florida ended up in a river at the end of a runway Friday night, though no critical injuries or deaths were reported, officials said. (May 4)
AP

Federal investigators were hoping Sunday that information obtained from a flight data recorder would unravel the mystery of why a Boeing 737-800 rolled off the end of a Florida runway and into the St. Johns River.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Dan Boggs said his 16-person team recovered the data recorder Saturday. The voice recorder was in a submerged portion of the plane and was not immediately retrieved, authorities said Sunday.

All 143 people aboard survived the accident Friday night during a thunderstorm at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. They climbed onto the jet’s wings and were taken to safety by rescuers in boats.

Hours earlier, passengers were warned that their aircraft might not be fit for takeoff because of an air conditioning problem, passenger Darwing Silva told the Tampa Bay Times.

“There was the biggest bang” after the plane landed, he said. Silva was in the exit row, and he opened the exit door, stepped out onto the wing, looked down and saw water. Help soon arrived, and he was the last person on his side of the plane to board a lifeboat. 

More than 20 people were treated for minor injuries, but only one was hospitalized – a 3-month-old baby, and only as a precaution, authorities said.

“I think it is a miracle,” base commanding officer Capt. Michael Connor said. “We could be talking about a different story.”

Engineers were containing spilled fuel with booms and using skimmers to remove fuel from the water, authorities said.

Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said skid marks indicated the plane swerved to the right and hit a sea wall before rolling into the river. He said the runway pavement had no grooves that might have allowed rainwater to flow off more quickly. That would be just one of many possible factors investigators will examine, he said.

Landsberg said a final report could take more than a year to complete. Boeing issued a statement saying it was providing technical assistance to the NTSB’s investigation.

At least four pets were traveling in the luggage department at the bottom of the military-chartered jet that had arrived from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They remained on  the aircraft and were presumed dead, Kaylee LaRocque, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy in Jacksonville, confirmed to USA TODAY.

Connor said emergency responders looked in the cargo bay and did not hear any animal noises or see any crates, suggesting they were under water. The plane was considered unstable, and responders then withdrew for their own safety, Connor said.

He said emergency personnel later completed a second assessment but again they did not see any pet carriers above the water. The flight’s manifest recorded four pets on board, but LaRocque said it’s possible more could have been boarded.

“It’s a very, obviously, rough situation,” he said. “My sympathy and my heart really goes out to those families.”

The plane skidded off the runway around 9:40 a.m. Cheryl Bormann, a prominent defense attorney who was aboard, described a chaotic landing as the pilot appeared to lose control of the aircraft before it touched down, bounced and swerved.

Naval Air Station Jacksonville is a military airport about 8 miles south of downtown.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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