WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A passenger on a plane that crashed into a Pacific lagoon on Friday said the flight attendants were panicking and he saw water pouring through a hole in the side of the plane before he was able to escape.
Local boats helped rescue all 47 passengers and crew after the plane hit the water while trying to land at the Chuuk Island airport in the Micronesia archipelago.
Seven people were taken to a hospital, according to officials, including one described as being in critical but stable condition.
Passenger Bill Jaynes said the Air Niugini plane came in very low.
“I thought we landed hard,” he said. “Until I looked over and saw a hole in the side of the plane and water was coming in. And I thought, well, this is not the way it’s supposed to happen.”
Jaynes said those aboard managed to wade through waist-deep water to the emergency exits on the sinking plane.
He said the flight attendants were yelling, and that he suffered a minor head injury. He said he called his wife, who started crying.
“I was really impressed with the locals who immediately started coming out in boats,” he said in an interview with a missionary in Chuuk, Matthew Colson, that was posted online and shared with the AP.
“One would think that they might be afraid to approach a plane that’s just crashed.”
The sequence of events remains unclear. The airline said the plane landed short of the runway. However, Jaynes said the only scenario he can imagine is that it hit the end of the runway and continued into the water.
The U.S. Navy said sailors working nearby on improving a wharf also helped in the rescue by using an inflatable boat to shuttle people ashore before the plane sank in about 30 meters (100 feet) of water.
The striking images of people being rescued from the half-submerged plane were reminiscent of the 2009 crash landing in New York City known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
Louie Mallari, who was working at a hotel near the airport, said he could hear the whole thing happen.
“As the plane approaches, the sound of the engine is getting stronger, then suddenly a splash of water,” he said, adding that he then heard screaming.
He said it’s a good thing that so many people use boats to travel and were able to quickly help with the rescue.
“It’s really fortunate that we didn’t have any fatalities,” said Glenn Harris, a government aviation security inspector for the Federated States of Micronesia.
Harris said the plane left from the Micronesian island of Pohnpei about 700 kilometers (435 miles) to the east before ending up in the water at about 10 a.m.
He said he has yet to see a passenger manifest, but typical passengers would include businesspeople from Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia, as well as some tourists. Chuuk is known for its world-class diving, with dozens of World War II shipwrecks visible in the clear waters.
Harris said he doesn’t know what caused the crash landing or whether the pilots had alerted air traffic control of any problems. He said an investigative team would be on the ground in Chuuk by Saturday to figure out what went wrong.
The airline said in a statement that the 35 passengers and 12 crew members aboard the Boeing 737 were all able to safely evacuate. It said the weather was poor at the time, with heavy rain and reduced visibility.
The airline said it was making all efforts to ensure the ongoing safety of the passengers and meet their immediate needs. It said it was in touch with embassies, passenger representatives, stakeholders and families of the crew.
Air Niugini is the national airline of Papua New Guinea and has operated since 1973. The airline identified the flight as PX 073 with the registration number P2-PXE. Flight histories show the aircraft has made recent flights to Manila, Sydney and Singapore.
Air Niugini’s network is concentrated on domestic routes linking the capital, Port Moresby, with isolated points across the Papua New Guinea archipelago, but it flies as far as Tokyo and Hong Kong.
The fleet includes Boeing 767 and 737 jets for international routes, according to the airline, as well as Fokker F-100 aircraft, Q400 and Dash 8 aircraft for challenging local terrain.
Micronesia, located north of Australia and east of the Philippines, is home to just over 100,000 people. It has close ties with the U.S. under an agreement known as a compact of free association.
The crash landing comes less than two months before Papua New Guinea hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, expected to draw world leaders beginning on Nov. 17.
In the “Miracle on the Hudson,” both engines on a U.S. Airways jet failed after it struck a flock of geese during takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Pilots Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles safely landed their powerless plane on the Hudson River and passengers and crew walked on the wings to be rescued.
In both crashes, everyone survived.
“I’m alive,” said Jaynes, the passenger. “That’s an extremely good thing.”
Associated Press journalists Penny Yi Wang, Nicole Evatt, Kiko Rosario and Adam Schreck in Bangkok contributed to this report.