Couple shares account of Flight 293 crash at NAS Jacksonville

Couple shares account of Flight 293 crash at NAS Jacksonville
Aerial photo shows the evacuation chute coming from the forward door, and the rocky shoreline that made exiting life rafts difficult. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Thomas A. Higgins/Released)

      This is a story of heroics and compassion, a story of people coming together in the face of tragedy. It began on Friday, May 3, 2019, late at night.

      “At approximately 9:40 p.m. today, a Boeing 737 arriving from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba into Naval Air Station Jacksonville slid off the runway into the St. Johns River,” stated a media announcement released by base personnel. “There were 136 passengers and seven aircrew on board, and all have been accounted for. Minor injuries have been reported, treated at the scene, and those requiring additional treatment were transported to a local hospital. There were no fatalities. An investigation into the mishap is underway.”

      For passengers and crew on board Miami Air Flight 293, the “mishap” began with aircraft issues earlier in the day. The chartered flight originated in Norfolk, landing at NAS Jacksonville where it spent six hours while ground crews worked on an air-cooling malfunction. The plane was released with the unrepaired malfunctioning air cooling and continued to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, also known as Gitmo.

      Meanwhile, the military and civilian passengers at Gitmo had been waiting at the terminal all day after having taken the ferry across the bay from Windward Point to Leeward Point Field, then were told the flight might be cancelled.

      When the flight finally departed at 7:19 p.m., the crew had been working all day and the cabin was “oven hot,” according to Vicki Pehmoeller, a passenger. “The plane sat baking all day in Jacksonville and then in Cuba.”

      During the two-hour 26-minute flight, severe thunderstorms had rolled across Florida and into Jacksonville. The flight was a “little bumpy,” said Vicki, who was sitting in the fourth row with her husband, Eric, a civilian employee with the Department of Defense.

“Too far down the runway”

     Originally hailing from Connecticut, the Pehmoellers sold their home in Southington, and sailed to Jacksonville in September 2017, where Eric worked as an engineering technician at NAS Mayport and Vicki was a nurse at a local hospital. He became interested in a similar position at Gitmo and was hired, so they set sail Feb. 22, 2019 from The Marina at Ortega Landing. The couple arrived at the Naval base in mid-March after sailing their 45-foot sailboat “Mischief” approximately 1,100 miles from Jacksonville to Cuba via the Bahamas.

Vicki and Eric Pehmoeller at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay two weeks prior to the plane crash at NAS Jacksonville.

Vicki and Eric Pehmoeller at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay two weeks prior to the plane crash at NAS Jacksonville.

      Six weeks later, the Pehmoellers had seats on Flight 293 to Jacksonville where Vicki was scheduled for minor surgery to remove hardware from a previously broken leg.

      As Flight 293 landed on the runway at NAS Jax, Eric turned to his wife and said, “We’re too far down the runway.” Vicki added, “It felt like we were coming in too fast and when we first touched down it was a slam, a hard, hard landing.”

      None of the passengers were told to assume a brace position, so when the aircraft landed and left the runway, Eric said they were whipped forward, then backward in their seats. When the plane finally came to a stop, no one yet knew they had landed in the St. Johns River.

      “Someone started yelling ‘Medic,’ so Vicki hopped to the back of the plane,” said Eric, while he headed forward to help flight attendants as they opened the aircraft’s door and began evacuation procedures. “The flight attendants and pilots were in a bit of a daze,” he said, “but everyone calmed down instantly. Even after the flight attendant announced, ‘We’re in the water,’ there still was no panic.”

      Eric and others asked passengers to pass the word back to open the cabin doors over the wings and then to evacuate. “There was no trampling; everyone was concerned about someone else. We – the passengers – really made it easy to be rescued because we delivered ourselves to the shore.” Most were able to evacuate with belongings, including a cat, that had been stowed under seats, but some passengers left behind cellphones, credit cards and other personal items.

      While Vicki and a physician’s assistant were tending to Randy Hall, who received a gash in his forehead, Eric and the pilot wrestled one of the six life rafts out the forward cabin door, down the evacuation chute and into the water. When the captain deployed the raft, the force of the action pitched him over the chute and into the river. Not knowing how deep the water was, Eric went in after the pilot, assisting him to safety at the wing, which was full of passengers waiting for life rafts.

      “We were able to deploy four of the rafts, and one took a gash from a bent piece of the plane’s flap, but everyone was able to get into a raft,” said Eric, who returned to the cabin to check for passengers and crew. The very last of the passengers and crew were taken ashore by rescue boat. He and another passenger, a young woman he thought was military, decided to try to rescue the pets in the cargo hold.

      “There was no hatch from the cabin floor to the hold, so we had to dive under,” Eric said. On their first attempt they couldn’t locate the door handle, but finally found it on the second dive. “I still couldn’t get the hatch open and realized I was getting jet fuel in my eyes, so we had to abort the rescue effort,” he said with visible emotion. Those pets – a Boxer and two cats – belonged to the woman who tried to treat Hall. She and her family were returning to the States after serving a tour in Guantanamo. Ironically, one of those cats had been rescued from the St. Johns River near Mayport when the family was stationed there prior to their deployment in Cuba. Sadly, rescuers were unable to save the pets.

Ordeal continues

     Dripping wet with torn clothes and stinging eyes, Eric returned to the cabin a second time with the pilot and a Jacksonville fireman for one last check and began handing backpacks and other personal items to remaining passengers.

      Meanwhile, Vicki had been helped into the punctured life raft but could not negotiate the rocky shore other passengers were climbing. The life raft went to a nearby dock where a wheelchair was brought over for her. “I kept asking ‘Where’s my husband? Where’s Eric?’ and was told he was already in the bus.”

      Because Vicki had texted family at the time of the crash and when she got into the life raft, they knew less than 40 minutes had transpired from the time the plane landed at 9:40 p.m. before all passengers were rescued.

      The couple were finally reunited on the bus which took the passengers and crew to a hangar on the base set up for triage. About two dozen passengers, including the Pehmoellers, were taken to local hospitals. Eric and Vicki were taken to Memorial Hospital where they were treated for a variety of injuries before being released.         

      The long night wasn’t over yet. Upon release from the hospital, well after midnight, the Pehmoellers boarded a bus which made several more stops collecting passengers from other local hospitals. One of those was a young soldier who was on his way from Guantanamo to Germany via Texas. “He only had his backpack and was wearing shorts. All his military gear was still in the plane’s cargo hold,” said Eric. “We tried to help get his orders delayed until he could get some other clothes but, in the end, he still had to board a plane at JIA on Saturday.”

      The NAS Jax Base Command Master Chief, Jeff Waters, the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and the Jacksonville Disaster Team were all present to assist the passengers and crew. After some time, base guest accommodations were straightened out. The Hyles family had been placed in a 2-bedroom cottage on base and generously offered to share one of the rooms with the Pehmoellers. Oneka Hyles and her three daughters, ages 2, 4 and 17, had traveled from Guantanamo to Jacksonville so that her oldest daughter could attend her Westside High School prom. Nekayla Hyles had graduated with honors in January before deploying with her family to Guantanamo, where her father and another sibling remained. The Hyles family were joined at the cottage by Nekayla’s grandmother, who had made her prom dress.

      “Unfortunately, all of her accessories, her shoes, purse, jewelry and makeup were still in the plane,” said Vicki, so the couple and Nekayla headed to the Navy Exchange where the manager assigned a personal shopper to the group. “Nekayla was worried that she wouldn’t find shoes the right height for her dress, but they found a match to the pair she lost and did her makeup, too.”

Nekayla Hyles has her makeup done at the Navy Exchange for her prom.

Nekayla Hyles has her makeup done at the Navy Exchange for her prom.

     

Still wearing her hospital ID bracelet and showing off a bruised knee, Nekayla Hyles poses in the prom dress her grandmother made next to the Jaguar which a Mayport employee loaned to her family for a week.

Still wearing her hospital ID bracelet and showing off a bruised knee, Nekayla Hyles poses in the prom dress her grandmother made next to the Jaguar which a Mayport employee loaned to her family for a week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The group spent well over two hours shopping to replace clothing and personal hygiene items, as well as Nekayla’s prom needs. “After we dumped everything at the cottage, we took her back to the Exchange’s makeup counter, where they did her makeup, covering up a big bruise on her forehead,” Vicki said.

      But that wasn’t all. “A friend of her father’s, stationed at Mayport, brought over his brand-new Jaguar for the family to use for the week,” said Eric, “so Nekayla was driven to the prom in style.”

      So many people stepped up in little – or large – ways to try to ease the trauma of Flight 293, said Eric, showing just how close the military family is.

      One week after the “mishap,” the Pehmoellers boarded a flight back to Guantanamo Bay.

      “It’s going to be hard to get back on an airplane,” said Vicki.

By Kate A. Hallock

Resident Community News

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