Cuban plane crashes in Gulf of Mexico; nine rescued

KEY WEST, Fla. - A small Cuban plane crashed into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, killing one of the 10 people aboard and leaving the rest clinging to debris before they were rescued by a cargo ship.

Air traffic control in Havana said the aircraft reported a possible hijacking before the crash, but U.S. authorities offered no immediate explanation before interviewing the survivors, a meeting expected late Tuesday.

In Cuba, in-laws of the man believed to be the pilot said he apparently left an airstrip at Los Palacios, west of Havana, and picked up his wife and two sons at an airport in Pinar del Rio before flying out over the open ocean.

It was unknown whether the single-engine plane ran out of gas.

Konstantinos Kalaitgis, captain of the Panamanian freighter Chios Dream, which rescued the survivors, said the plane circled his ship several times and dropped a box into the sea. The plane crashed nearby and the survivors scrambled out.

''People go all over the place,'' he said.

The crash site is about 50 miles west of Cuba or about 150 miles east of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It was 285 miles from Key West.

Of the survivors - three men, three women and three children - a 36-year-old man had serious neck injuries. He was picked up by a Coast Guard helicopter late Tuesday and flown to Florida for treatment.

On board the cargo ship was a doctor from the Carnival Cruise ship Tropicale, which was nearby on a voyage from Tampa to Grand Cayman Island. Carnival spokesman Andy Newman said a female survivor had a broken collarbone and another a severe leg cut. He said the other five had no serious injuries.

A Coast Guard cutter planned to meet the freighter Tuesday night and pick up the survivors. The most seriously injured were to be flown to Florida for treatment.

Mercedes Martinez - believed to be the pilot's wife - ''never talked about doing this, not even in jest,'' said her brother, Jorge Martinez, in Pinar del Rio. Relatives identified her husband as Lenin Iglesia Hernandez, 35, and their sons as Erik, 13, and Danny, 7.

The mother and sons left home with no suitcases and no other indication they were headed on a longer trip, the relatives said.

In Washington, Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Maria Cardona said an INS official was aboard the cutter and planned to interview the survivors.

Cubans wishing to return to the island would be permitted to do so. Those who expressed a credible fear of persecution would be sent temporarily to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, on Cuba's eastern tip, for further processing, Cardona said.

Details of who was on the flight and where it was going were unclear late Tuesday. The Coast Guard said it was heading west - away from both Florida and Cuba - when it went down.

Air traffic control in Havana notified the air traffic control center in Miami at 8:45 a.m. that the aircraft reported a possible hijacking, said Kathleen Bergen, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman in Atlanta. Contact was lost 15 minutes later.

The FAA had no voice or radar contact with the aircraft, Bergen said. The Pentagon also said it had no radar contact with the plane.

''Apparently it was hijacked, and the pilot indicated they only had 1 hours fuel,'' said Lauren Gail Stover, associate director of Miami-Dade County Aviation Department.

The Antonov AN-2 Colt took off from Herradura Airport in Pinar del Rio, in Cuba's western province. Based on the last radar location given by Cuban air traffic controllers and an emergency beacon signal picked up by a U.S. AWACS plane, it was believed to have gone down about 90 miles southwest of Key West, U.S. officials said.

The survivors, however, were pulled from the water 200 miles west of that area. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thad Allen couldn't explain the discrepancy.

Cuban officials initially reported that as many as 18 people were on the plane, but Allen said the survivors told their rescuers that only 10 were aboard.

The long-range bush plane is used for passenger flights, crop-dusting and forest fire suppression. U.S. officials initially described the Russian-made plane as a sea plane.

A similar aircraft was stolen by its pilot and four other Cubans on June 19, 1991. That plane landed safely at Miami International Airport, directed in by air traffic controllers who had both radar and radio contact with the pilot.

U.S. law allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to apply for U.S. residency. The communist government in Cuba says the law violates 1994 and 1995 migration accords with the United States aimed at encouraging orderly, legal immigration.

President Clinton said the health and safety of the survivors should be America's first concern.

''I can imagine that there will be a lot of questions about what should be done about the people that are found alive,'' Clinton said. ''I think the most important thing now is just to worry about their care.''


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