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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2018
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Fourth victim recovered after planes from troubled flight school crash in Everglades

As investigators continued to scour the Everglades Wednesday morning in the aftermath of Tuesday’s mid-air collision between two small aircraft, police said they recovered a fourth body.

By mid-morning, the body had not yet been identified.

"Homicide investigators have confirmed that a fourth body has been found," said Miami-Dade Detective Argemis Colome.

Tuesday afternoon, two small aircraft — a Piper PA-34 and a Cessna 172 collided about nine miles west of Miami Executive Airport at 12800 SW 145th Ave, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Both planes belonged to Dean International Flight School, based at the airport, said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

FAA records show there have been 26 accidents or incidents involving aircraft from the same flight school since 2007. Killed in the crash were Jorge Sanchez, 22, Ralph Knight, 72 and Nisha Sejwal, 19. Police have not yet identified the missing fourth victim.

The bodies were recovered with the help of nearby airboat operators. Miami-Dade police and fire rescue continued to scour the Everglades for clues and the bodies Wednesday morning. Miccosukee police, the Florida Highway Patrol and National Park Rangers also took part in the search and rescue.

From a staged area a few miles from the crash site, Zabaleta said Tuesday that homicide detectives had determined that the two planes were likely training. The federal National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA are investigating.

"Which leaves us to believe that you have a pilot and a trainer or trainer and a student, and in another plane a trainer and student," he said.

A family member of Knight, the 72-year-old killed in the crash, said he was an experienced pilot who taught his two sons how to fly.

"They all grew up around flying," said Knight’s daughter-in-law Diedre Knight, who was on her way to the airport Wednesday morning to pick up her husband. "He [Ralph] was a private pilot" who often flew to the Bahamas.

Daniel Miralles, an angler who frequently spends afternoons fishing in canals near the airport, said he looked up in time to see the planes collide and record video of falling debris on his cellphone.

"I heard a weird sound. It sounded like a plane, but it it sounded too close. It sounded like an 18-wheeler going 100 mph down the street," said Miralles.

The planes came down in a remote area reachable only by airboat. Dozens of emergency vehicles assisting in the rescue efforts gathered at Coopertown Airboat, 227th Avenue and Southwest Eighth Street about a dozen miles northwest of Executive Airport.

"Our crews were actually out here this morning training for incidents just as this," said Miami-Dade Fire Marine Chief Andy Alvarez.

Alvarez said when crews arrived they boarded their fire rescue airboats and others from private companies willing to help and searched for debris. About a half mile in they found a downed plane. They tagged the debris and marked the GPS location, Alvarez said.

"About that point and time, we started receiving phone calls of a possible second aircraft and a possible explosion in the air, which led us to believe there was a midair collision," Alvarez said. Crews, with the help from air rescue, then found the second debris site about 400 yards away.

Rescuers continued to search the two wreckage sites late into the afternoon. The hum of airboats could be heard throughout the evening behind a thick brush between the wreckage site and Southwest Eighth Street, the main drag through the Everglades.

Just before 6 p.m., rescue crews hauled in industrial lighting, suggesting the investigation would last long after the sun set. The area is void of buildings and streetlights and goes pitch black at night.

With little information available Tuesday afternoon, friends and family of pilots at Dean International waited anxiously for information at Executive Airport. Michael Coppo stood outside the flight school awaiting information about Sanchez, an old friend he met in Miami Dade College’s aviation program.

Coppo said Sanchez was on a "cross-country trip," meaning he was traveling 50 nautical miles to another airport with a student and then returning. Coppo said Sanchez left at 9 a.m. and should have been back by 1 p.m., around the time of the crash.

Coppo used to fly from Dean, but stopped about a year ago. He estimated that he and Sanchez flew 100 hours together before Coppo left the flight school.

Sanchez’s black Ford Mustang, with an "I’d Rather Be Flying" license plate frame, sat in the parking lot outside the school.

His older brother, Julio Sanchez, said Jorge was about four or five months short of reaching the required 1,500 hours flying time a pilot must have by federal law before applying to a regional airline.

"In his mind, he was a pilot the minute he was born," Sanchez said of his brother.

The younger Sanchez began his aviation training in high school and then at George T. Baker Aviation Technical College, before going on to receive his private, commercial and instructor’s pilot licenses at Miami-Dade College, his brother said. Julio Sanchez, who is also a pilot, said he’ll continue training in honor of his brother.

"He was on his way to accumulating all the hours toward his goal. It was his and my dream, the road map we were both taking," said Julio, 28. "I was following in his footsteps. And I’ll continue in his honor."

Another victim, Sejwal, enrolled in Dean International in September 2017, according to her Facebook page.

Her love of flying is evident from her Facebook posts, which include hashtags #aviationforlife and #pilotlife.

Dean International’s website says it offers primary instruction for student pilots, advanced instruction for private and commercial pilots and training for multi-engine flights. What it doesn’t say is that FAA records showed more than two dozen accidents and incidents from 2007-2017.

A woman who answered the phone at Dean International’s Executive Airport office told a reporter to call back Wednesday. Dean staff at the hangar declined to comment, and one woman in a Dean uniform threatened to have reporters arrested who were trying to interview students and workers.

"Can you please go home? The cops are here and you know very well you’re not supposed to be here," the woman said.

A Miami-Dade police officer sat in his car in a field across SW 129th Street from the Dean parking lot to make sure reporters did not go back to the school’s entrance.

Herald staff writers David Smiley, David J. Neal, Douglas Hanks, David Goodhue, Carli Teproff and Rebecca Ellis contributed to this report.

   
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