The bodies of two Americans, a Dominican and three other individuals on a single-engine airplane that crashed in Haiti late Friday were recovered due to the persistence of a group of missionaries and a pilot from Jacmel in southeastern Haiti, one of the rescuers told the Miami Herald in an exclusive interview.
Andy Faller, who led a search team for the wreckage of the South Florida registered airplane, said they found the mangled airplane after a seven-hour drive up a rugged mountain and trekking on foot. After arriving at the site at 5 a.m. Saturday, they recovered the bodies with the help of about 20 locals and took them to the nearby town of Petit-Goâve at about 9 p.m.
The recovery, Faller said, took place after local police, finding the area too difficult to reach, abandoned the search and a helicopter sent by the National Office of Civil Aviation was unable to land because of cross winds from an approaching Tropical Storm Elsa. Volunteers, including the pilot who drove up in a Land Rover, recovered the bodies using four-wheel drive vehicles.
“Thankfully [another] group of missionaries and a pilot from Jacmel reached the area in the afternoon and they were able to get the bodies out,” Faller said. “That was not a easy task at all. “
The aircraft, leased to Kiskeya Airways, left Port-au-Prince at 6:57 p.m. Friday bound for Jacmel, where it was scheduled to arrive at 7:09 p.m. It crashed on the way in the community of Léogâne in the locality of Mathurin, a rural and mountainous section of Beauséjour.
Other than confirming the crash, Haitian authorities have not provided any details on how the airplane, with a U.S. registration number of N8694N and registered to Citadelle Holdings LLC of Palmetto Bay, may have crashed.
“I flew on the same plane with the same pilot a few weeks ago,” Faller said. “He had told me he was a Venezuelan who had worked in Haiti for two years.”
Sources familiar with the crash confirmed to the Herald that the pilot had a Venezuelan pilot license and an expired medical certificate. Haitian aviation officials have not responded to an inquiry from the Miami Herald about the pilot’s qualifications to fly in Haiti.
Faller said interviews with three different witnesses have helped shed some light on the tragic accident. A young man, a young woman and an older man all told the same story without knowing what the others had relayed.
The plane, they said, had entered a ravine and was flying too low.
“It was below the mountains on each side. It looked like the plane was trying to gain altitude but was struggling,” Faller said. “The left wing dipped, then the right, then the left, then the right and it was not flying a straight path. It was starting to gain altitude and all of a sudden it went nose down and hit a rock cliff that came up out of the ravine, close to the top of it, falling about 200 feet, but it was a total of about 600 feet lower then the top of the ravine.
“After that the plane fell, it rolled,” Faller said the witnesses reported. “The witnesses also said an American jumped from the plane before it hit the mountain side. That American would be John Miller and makes sense in how we found him.”
Miller, an evangelist from Wisconsin, was found “a little bit away from the plane and slumped over some rocks face down.” Miller had just arrived in Haiti Friday to help with a medical mission sponsored by Gospel to Haiti, a Christian mission operating in the country since 2004.
Faller said everyone with the exception of a Dominican passenger on board died instantly.
“A Dominican young man was still alive and was able to say ‘por favor,’s but died just after he said that,” Faller said.
Trent Hostetler, 35, who is the administrator for Gospel to Haiti, based in the mountains of Petit-Goâve, was the only person still in the mangled aircraft, Faller said.
A pilot familiar with Haiti’s mountainous terrain said based on the description it sounds like the pilot either had engine problems, was trying to bring the plane down somewhere in the steep valley or made a mistake on where he was supposed to land and tried to climb out when he realized his mistake. Haitian aviation officials have said an investigation is ongoing.
“I am still trying to process that all. It just doesn’t feel real,” Faller said. “When we got to the wreckage, the plane was mangled.”
Faller, who is part of Christian Witness Mission, another mission group in the region, said he learned about the disappearance of Hostetler, a friend, from a WhatsApp message group that missionaries working in Haiti are on.
“His wife posted a message asking if anyone can try to find Trent,” Faller said. On another group, people began sharing messages that there was rumor a plane had crashed.
After confirming the crash and that Hostetler, 35, and Miller, 43, were on board, Faller said he headed out. He was joined by two other missionaries, Trevor Byers, and Brian Beachy, who got a team of locals together to help in the search.
After speaking to the local ambulance company, the voluntary search team learned that the airplane was in a hard-to-reach mountainous region of Haiti just outside of the capital. Faller located someone who knew where the plane had gone down and with the help of another local Haitian, they headed out on the rugged mountain road. It was 10:30 p.m.
“We arrived as far as you could drive and the police had just arrived as well. We headed out by foot walking and finally arrived at the top of the ravine where the plane had crashed, at 5 a.m.,” he said. “We were concerned about the approaching hurricane and learned of another road that was easier to reach the site and could arrive by dirt bike.
“Brian Beachy decided to walk back to the where we left the vehicles and drive them back out and around and as far up the other road as possible because if it started raining we would not be able to get the vehicle out of the road we were in,” he said.
“The police that had been with us decided it was too hard to reach the site and they too left us,” Faller said.
They waited until daylight and then sent a team down the ravine to the plane.
“We confirmed Trent and John were on the plane and there were no survivors,” he said.
It looked like it was going to be impossible to recover the bodies before the arrival of Elsa, which was headed to Haiti as a Category 1 hurricane but was later downgraded to a tropical storm. There was another group of missionaries and locals who tried to reach the team using the same road they came by, Faller said, but had to turn around.
After organizing a group of locals from the area, he said, “with their help we got the bodies removed from the wreckage and out of the ravine.”