A federal investigation is underway into a plane crash Wednesday afternoon off Molokai's Kalaupapa peninsula that led to the death of state Health Director Loretta Fuddy.
The 65-year-old was among nine people aboard the Makani Kai Air turboprop that had left Kalaupapa for Oahu when the plane lost power and the pilot landed it in the ocean about a half-mile northwest of Kalaupapa, police said.
Police said the cause of Fuddy's death wasn't determined, and an autopsy was scheduled for today on Molokai.
The National Transportation Safety Board said an investigator responded Wednesday to begin the investigation into the cause of the crash.
The crash was reported at 3:37 p.m. after a pilot reported seeing debris in the water. The U.S. Coast Guard and Maui Fire Department responded, sending a plane, helicopters and boats for the rescue effort.
Coast Guard pilot Wes Red Elk, flying an H-65 Dolphin helicopter that launched after the call that the plane was down, said he arrived to find other Coast Guard aircraft on scene.
Rescuers take a passenger from a plane that crashed off Kalaupapa from an emergency medical helicopter at Topside Molokai at the beginning of the trail down to Kalaupapa on Wednesday.
The Molokai Dispatch / JESSICA AHLES photo
A Coast Guard H-60 rescue helicopter had located survivors in two groups - one about a mile offshore and another a half-mile offshore, Red Elk said. Smoke floats had been positioned to mark the locations so "we were able to go directly to the survivors instead of having to search for them."
In the group farther from shore, the Dolphin helicopter located two people in the water and hoisted them aboard the helicopter, Red Elk said. The helicopter moved to the second location, but Red Elk said he didn't see anyone else in the water. He said another Coast Guard helicopter picked up Fuddy, who was initially reported to be in critical condition.
At the same time, a rescue crew aboard the Maui Fire Department's Air One helicopter was using a net attached to the helicopter to individually retrieve those who were in the group closer to shore and take them to safety.
"Everybody was on scene within a few minutes of each other," Red Elk said. "Everybody did their part to get everybody out of the water and onto land."
Maui County Fire Services Chief Lee Mainaga said the Fire Department rescued five survivors from the ocean in winds estimated at 15 mph.
"This was one of the bigger rescues we did," Mainaga said. "They did an awesome job."
One passenger, a 70-year-old man from Kailua, Oahu, swam to shore while the others were still at sea, said police Capt. John Jakubczak, commander of the Molokai Patrol District.
The 70-year-old was among three passengers taken to Molokai General Hospital on Wednesday night, he said. A 53-year-old man from Waipahu, Oahu, and a 46-year-old woman from Kalaupapa also were treated at the Molokai hospital, Jakubczak said. All three were released from the hospital.
While Kalaupapa is not part of the police Molokai Patrol District, police took reports from those patients transported to topside Molokai.
One of the two people who refused medical treatment and stayed in Kalaupapa afterward was the pilot, he said. Those who remained at Kalaupapa were transported via another Makani Kai plane back to Oahu on Wednesday night, Jakubczak said.
Earlier Wednesday, three other passengers were flown to Oahu for medical treatment.
Red Elk said those initially rescued were "cold and wet" and suffering from cuts, scrapes, bruises and broken bones.
"Everybody was very tired," he said. "They were happy. The one individual that was a little less tired threw us a thumbs-up. All of them were a little shocked and were glad to be on dry land."
Red Elk estimated that the Coast Guard arrived on scene about 40 minutes after being notified of the crash and that everyone had been pulled out of the water 20 to 30 minutes after that.
Once it was confirmed that all nine people were accounted for, their medical conditions were assessed.
All eight people in the ocean were wearing life vests that had been inflated, Red Elk said.
"It made a big difference," he said. "If not, we might not have been able to get as many survivors as we did. Any time an airplane crashes and the majority of the people survive, it's a good thing and not necessarily what you expect."
Red Elk said small pieces of wreckage were visible but not the airplane.
Richard Schuman, owner of Makani Kai Air, said the crash occurred when the single engine of the 2002 Cessna Grand Caravan failed soon after it took off from Molokai and made its turn toward Honolulu, according to The Associated Press.
Schuman said the pilot did his best to get the plane down safely and keep the passengers together in the waters off Molokai.
Asked how they survived, he responded: "Will."
"There's only one engine on that plane and when it quits on you, you just have to deal with it in that moment," he said.
The same type of plane - a Cessna Grand Caravan operated by Mokulele Airlines - made an emergency landing Oct. 21 on Piilani Highway in Wailea after the crew reported a loss of engine power shortly after leaving Kahului Airport for Waimea-Kohala Airport. The eight passengers and two pilots aboard the plane were uninjured.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.
* Video courtesy of Lt. Byron Weber. U.S. Coast Guard District 14 Hawaii