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Rescuers at the scene of the plane crash. (Photo courtesy of Roatan Fire department)

Five Die in Roatan’s Biggest Air Disaster to Date

Roatan experienced it’s most deadly airplane crash in history when on May 18 a Piper Cherokee Six with pilot and four passengers on board crashed right after takeoff. The single engine plane flew at an altitude of around 100 meters and at 2:17 pm fell into the calm, barely two-foot-deep waters in Dixon Cove, just 50 meters from Stamp Cay and 150 meters from the Roatan’s main road. There were witnesses to the crash and people arrived at the crash site within minutes.

The Roatan firemen pulled out the crash victims from the wreck, but only one, a passenger sitting with his back towards the front of the plane was still alive when rescued. Despite many attempts to save his life, the victim died at the Roatan public hospital.

While Roatan does have an emergency center at a public hospital in Coxen Hole, the island lacks a trauma center and specialists capable of stabilizing a patient with vast, or complex internal damage. “We have been fooling ourselves with thinking that we can handle an accident with multiple injured where we couldn’t deal with one,” said Dainie Etches, a Canadian warden on the island who has had assisted in dozens of incidents and mishaps that involved Canadians over the years. Etches says that the construction of the new public hospital in Dixon Cove is moving forward too slowly, and the new hospital is no guarantee that government will properly staff it and equip it. “There isn’t a single orthopedist on the island right now,” said Etches.

Piloting the plane was Patrick Forseth, a 32-year-old Canadian pilot and entrepreneur who lived in Trujillo. Forseth flew multiple times that day departing Trujillo, then flying to Roatan and to Guanaja.  A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news news report quoted John Enman, a passenger who flew from Trujillo to Roatan that day, saying that Forseth told him during the flight  that “he had been delayed because of mechanical issues – a broken wire from the ignition to the battery, which a mechanic had fixed.”

Forseth picked up four American passengers who arrived from Houston and booked his plane for a flight to Guanaja. Those passengers were:Bradley Post, Robert Miller, Anthony Dubler and Frederick Tepel. The plane took off at 2:15 pm and flew a kilometer heading east.

Mary Russell, who was just a hundred meters from the crash site, reported hearing two backfires and a loud sound of the plane hitting the water. “It looked like there is a bit of smoke on takeoff. Take off looks hard and it [the plane] lifts slowly, then it looks like the engine stopped and almost at the same time the plane lost its lift on the left wing,” described the footage of the crash Patrice Bellemare, a Roatan Dive Shop owner. A video of crash was recorded by a security camera on a cruise ship in Mahogany Bay. Bellmare assisted with the removal of the plane from the crash site.

The incident is being investigated by Mario Carcamo, Chief of the Honduras Investigative Commission of Air Accidents and Incidents. It is not clear what caused the engine to quit, or what happened after that.

The proper technique after loss of engine power is to immediately tilt the airplane down in order to maintain speed and keep the airplane flying. “You are trained in a failure like this to go straight,” said Mike Boden, a 30-year Delta Airlines veteran pilotand Roatan resident. “Keep control is what you are doing.” Another person who was perplexed why an engine failure in these circumstances became such a fatal crash is Larry Forseth, Patrick’s father and veteran Air Canada pilot. “The situation was survivable” Larry Forseth had told the Canadian media. “It is clear that the plane had stalled out with the tail being broken like that,” said Boden. The plane’s chassis completely disintegrated suggesting a great vertical speed right before impact.

Several friends and family testified of that Patrick Forseth repeated training for loss of engine power in the past. “Patrick reacted quickly and got the plane away from a close-to-stall situation,” remembers Edil Mendez a 2018 emergency landing situation when the plane’s landing gear failed to open. “He was a friend, like a brother,” says Mendez who did several med-evac flights from Roatan with Patrick Forseth.

The reasons for engine failure and subsequent airplane flight are unclear. Not out of the question is passenger interference. In 2010 an accident investigation determined that a passenger interfered with the operating of the airplane during a flight near Vancouver Island when passenger interference caused the pilot to lose control of the aircraft, resulting in a crash and death of all four on board. FAA has no recommendations as far as placing passengers that are pilots next to the pilot. There are reports that two of the four passengers knew how to fly but were seated in the back of the plane. The pilot’s preference in small airplanes is to seat heavier passengers up front to better distribute the plane’s weight.

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