Responders Stage Effective Recovery Operation After a Plane Crashes into Lake Erie

Shortly after 2100 hrs on Sept. 3, 2007, a Cessna aircraft crashed into the warm waters of Lake Erie less than 1 mile east of Kelleys Island, Ohio. Rescue personnel from numerous local fire and police departments, along with state and federal resources, searched for victims. The regional coordination of this incident reinforces the need for emergency services to plan and train together.

The Call

Emergency responders from various agencies in north central Ohio were requested for this unusually challenging event. Initial calls were directed to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) from the Kelleys Island Police Department at 0917 hrs. Dive teams from the Huron Fire Division, Lakeside Fire Department, Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department and Sandusky Fire Department all responded. Other emergency watercraft came from the Put-in-Bay Police Department, the Sandusky Police Department and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Local Kelley’s Island emergency responders were on scene within minutes, and there was an influx of responders from various agencies over the next several hours.

The plane departed Kelleys Island with three individuals, but only one survived. A 7-year-old boy made it out of the plane after impact and was rescued by a resident of Kelleys Island, Chuck Herndon, who saw the plane crash into the water from a neighbor’s house. Herndon rushed to his rowboat and started out into the water. It took about 15 minutes for him to locate the boy, who occasionally yelled for help, facilitating the rescue. The boy treaded water for an extended period, leaving him physically exhausted. Following the rescue, he was flown by medical helicopter to a trauma center for evaluation and treatment. He confirmed his father and brother were missing.

The cause of the crash is under FAA investigation, but weather conditions aren’t thought to have played a role.

Late Night Search

As responders converged on the scene, so did many recreational boaters, creating difficult, but manageable obstacles. The holiday weekend was winding down, but a larger than normal amount of boat traffic still existed around the island. USCG Station Marblehead commenced search operations and secured the area with assistance from responding law enforcement agencies. Smaller, run-about boats were used to redirect non-essential boat traffic away from the scene.

The large search area was directly offshore from the island’s airport runway. Initially, searchers found a large fuel slick that was being disturbed by all the boat traffic, a small wheel believed to be part of an airplane’s landing gear and several small pieces of debris.

The only witnesses were on shore and unable to communicate with dive teams about the approximate location of the downed aircraft because the dive teams initially didn’t know the witnesses’ identities and locations. Instead, searchers relayed the GPS coordinates of the wheel to dive teams so underwater search operations could begin. After numerous dives in water 20 feet deep, no evidence of the airplane was found.

As the night wore on and the complexity of the incident increased, USCG Sector Detroit sent more watercraft and a helicopter. Darkness and the frustration of not having a solid dive location made the operation more complex for rescuers. Divers at the surface also faced communication and vision obstacles due to the helicopter flying overhead and illuminating the search area with spotlights. The lights were very helpful to those on scene, but not to the divers looking up for direction from their boats.

Personnel from the Toledo Fire Department and Ohio’s Region One Dive Team brought a side-scan sonar unit (for more about side-scan sonar in searches, see the May 2007 issue of FireRescue, p. 12) for underwater searching prior to any more dive operations.

In the early hours of Sept. 4, dive teams and police agencies were released until daylight. The Coast Guard, ODNR and operators of the side-scan sonar continued to gather evidence throughout the night in preparation for daylight recovery efforts.

As can be imagined, this incident received a great deal of local and regional media attention. Except for several media helicopters, all of the media was confined to the shore. The USCG handled all of the media relations through a public information officer (PIO), who held regular briefings.


By 0800 hrs on Sept. 4, dive teams from the Huron Fire Division, Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office and Sandusky Fire Department were preparing to begin underwater search operations again. Vessels from the USCG provided scene security by not allowing any recreational boaters near the dive site. Personnel running the side-scan sonar unit gathered information and marked their targets with buoys.

The dive teams positioned themselves initially about 100 yards apart and dove on separate marks. All the divers wore drysuits, which protected them from potential contaminants, and full facemasks, allowing for excellent communication from diver to diver and diver to ship. Initial dives began to produce evidence of the wrecked aircraft, including a plane wing, engine, flight manual and other debris. The dives were becoming more successful due to daylight visibility, better eyewitness accounts of where the plane went down and multiple images scanned by the sonar unit that resembled parts of an aircraft.

By mid-morning, divers located the fuselage and confirmed at least one victim was trapped in the wreckage. All divers surfaced, and the three dive teams rafted their vessels together above the fuselage to coordinate the extrication and recovery plan. Next, two divers with photography equipment were sent down to record the scene as part of the investigation and to produce pictures that responders on the surface could use to develop an extrication plan. After additional facts, such as the position of the victim, needed tools and the hazards presented by the aircraft’s sharp sheet metal, were returned to the surface, four divers descended to extricate the victim from the cockpit.

With only minor difficulties, the four divers were able to extricate, package and haul the young male victim to the surface vessels. Two divers returned to the fuselage to search the cockpit and immediate surrounding area, but did not locate the missing pilot. That afternoon, additional dives resumed, resulting in the recovery of the pilot, who was located a short distance from the fuselage.

Diver safety was paramount throughout this recovery operation. Safety measures included:

  • Divers were tethered to the surface and constantly monitored by topside tenders.
  • Divers were limited to 20-minute bottom times and rotated regularly. This prevented potential out-of-air scenarios due to increased air consumption because of the physically demanding work.
  • Divers used buoyancy control devices (BCDs) and carried their own air supply. They also carried a totally independent air supply in case of entrapment or primary equipment failure.

Lessons Learned

It’s not every day that you respond to a plane crash in water, but despite the uniqueness of this call, it provides several universal lessons.

  • Regional coordination is essential during large-scale incidents. The incident command system (ICS) was used during this incident and was communicated through interoperable radio systems. After initial confusion due to the large number of responding agencies, the USCG accounted for the plan and responders on scene. This coordination allowed for minimal interruption of the investigation, search, dive and recovery operations. Future planning, training and coordination will hopefully allow for an even more efficient unified command.
  • Regular interagency training increases operability. Previous training and planning allowed the dive teams to work safer, faster and more efficiently together. Each team knows the capabilities of the other and is familiar with the equipment they use. Continued training is essential to ensure safe and coordinated future operations.
  • Diver entanglement is a definite hazard when diving around wreckage. During this recovery operation divers worked in restricted areas around the submerged aircraft. One diver’s tank became hung up on the aircraft’s passenger door, but the diver was able to quickly obtain help from other divers because of the full facemask communications.
  • Emotional and physical fatigue adds to an already challenging incident. The change from rescue to recovery is an operational decision understood by divers, but it still takes its toll. Swimming in low-visibility water, locating the victim and recovering the victim are highly technical operations. If emotional and physical fatigue aren’t monitored, mistakes and injuries may result. At this incident, the divers were focused and prepared for the task. Individual dive masters on each dive vessel monitored their divers. If problems arose, those dive masters would request additional assistance.
  • Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISD) are important to responder health. Even after our best professional efforts, this incident created emotional reactions that could impair the well-being of one or all involved. From the most veteran to the probationary emergency responder, everyone should take part in a debriefing within 24—72 hours of a critical incident. A CISD is not an operational critique or performance investigation, but a way to reduce stress, provide support to each other and improve skills to cope with future critical incidents.

A Final Word

Diving operations bring with them inherent risks and require significant preplanning and training to be successful. Diver safety must be paramount, and once an operation switches from rescue to recovery, incident commanders must be alert for mental and physical fatigue. With technologies such as side-scanning sonar, multi-agency cooperation and solid training, such operations can be a success, despite their tragic nature.

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