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Hijacked Cuban Plane Down in the Water

Aired September 19, 2000 - 10:57 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: While we continue to take information on what is happening with this plane that apparently left Cuban air space a short time ago, we are monitoring a number of different -- a number of different things.

What we are getting right now, if we could put up a live picture, Opalocka airport. This is one of the airports in southern Florida in Miami. It is said by local police down there that the plane was in route to this airport. But, through several different sources, WSVN TV, an excellent affiliate of ours in southern Florida, WFOR TV. and also the Associated Press, starting to pick up some new stuff.

Going to go ahead and put up a graphic on the screen here. Pardon my back, I'm going to go to the computer and get the latest we have on this and see what we can pick up about this right now.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: There is your picture. Here is a picture of the kind of airplane that we are talking about, right here. It's a Russian-built aircraft. It's called an Anushka, also known as an Annie. Known to Russian pilots, it was designed just after World War II. We had Carl Rochelle on just a few minutes ago, talking about what kind of plane it is, again, not an airliner.

And we are calling this a hijacked Cuban plane. The wires are saying it's a stolen plane. So, we'll have to get someone on to tell us what the deal is, if it was stolen or actually hijacked.

HEMMER: You know, Daryn, a couple of things I picked up off of WSVN, they did a special report breaking into their programming a short time ago. They say this plane, apparently, left Cuban air space about 9:37 a.m. That would be Eastern time, local time in Cuba. The U.S. Coast Guard has been notified about the plane.

The Associated Press is reporting, again, it was on its way to Florida. But all of these reports coming in in a trickling fashion, right now. We're not really sure what to believe, or what to know, right now, about the facts about this case.

KAGAN: I was just handed a note that a spokesman from Miami International Airport says that the FAA is actually down in the water, and in the waters between Cuba and the U.S. mainland.

HEMMER: Again, a Russian-made plane, apparently, left Cuban air space, a short time ago. Again, it's only 90 miles from the northern tip of Cuba to Key West in southern Florida. For a plane, any type of plane, it would not take very long to cover that air space. That -- that would have to be required to fly over the strait of Florida.

KAGAN: But, as Carl Rochelle was pointing out in his report before, we don't know how much fuel was on board. And, he also said that this is a plane that goes rather slowly, about 80 miles an hour, and in the plane world, aviation world, not the fastest of planes.

Again, we don't know who's on board; we don't know how many people; and we don't know what their intentions are about getting trying to get from Cuba to the U.S.

HEMMER: We will continue to monitor it, and do we have Carl back with us in Washington?

Forthcoming, OK, you heard Carl talk about the number of people who can actually travel inside this plane. The Associated Press is pointing out about 14 people were on board. But, again that is the story we are getting through the Associated Press.

Carl is going to be on standby in a second here.

WSVN now out of Miami now up again reporting a live picture now from southern Florida. I'm assuming this is Opa-locka Airport. We will listen and find out if indeed that is the case.

UNIDENTIFIED WSVN REPORTER: ... in this situation. Again, though, they -- I was just told by Cynthia Paul (ph), the PIO, one of the PIOs out here at MIA, that the plane looks to be down, Cuban authorities requesting help with the water search.

UNIDENTIFIED WSVN ANCHOR: And, of course, Mike, that would make sense if the plane left at 8:45 this morning. It is now 11:00 in the morning. The plane certainly could have traversed the 200 miles or so, 200 to 300 miles, between that point and any point in South Florida in just a couple to three hours. So the plane certainly would be in this area now. That lends a lot of credence to reports that it is in the water.

Again, this is a hijacking that was reported shortly before 9:00 this morning of a Russian-built plane that left Pinar del Rio Airport in western Cuba and headed northwest, apparently towards South Florida.

We've got Derek Hayward (ph) on the phone now from Opa-locka -- Derek.


UNIDENTIFIED WSVN ANCHOR: Earlier in the day that was a likely destination of the aircraft. We do know that...

KAGAN: All right, we've been listening to coverage from one of our affiliates, WSVN out of Miami, Florida, about this Cuban plane that apparently was trying to get to the U.S. Let's get the Cuban side of the story, or at least from that side of the sea. And that we'll do with Allison Flexner, our CNN producer who is currently in our Havana bureau.

Allison, what do you know from Havana?

ALLISON FLEXNER, CNN PRODUCER: Cuban Civil Aviation has told CNN that a Russian-made AN2 plane has been hijacked from Pinar del Rio. It was a plane that flies in that province on the western part of the island. At this time, they do not have any information on who is aboard the plane, how many people, and whether -- we do not know whether or not they've had -- what kind of contact they've had with the plane.

In general, the AN2s here are used as tourist transport planes or for fumigation.

KAGAN: So, Allison, I mean, do we know in particular what this specific plane was doing? Was its transporting tourists or fumigating?

FLEXNER: No, we don't have that information at this time.

KAGAN: You don't know. Do you have any word on what Cuban authorities are doing about the situation right now?

FLEXNER: They are looking into the situation and that's...

KAGAN: OK. You mentioned this plane was not out of Havana. Give us an idea about where in Cuba this airport is.

FLEXNER: Right. It's in the westernmost province of Cuba, Pinar del Rio. The capital city of that province is by the same name. And...


FLEXNER: ... it was flying internally in that part of the island.

KAGAN: Oh, so we think it was going from one place in Cuba to another place...

FLEXNER: Exactly.

KAGAN: ... originally, was its intention, although we don't know why if it was transporting tourists.

FLEXNER: That is correct.

KAGAN: All right, Allison Flexner, our producer, CNN producer based in Havana, thank you very much for that.

With more on the story, here's Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Daryn. Just want to recap what we're getting. And, again, the facts are precious and few right now, but what we do know, about 9:37 a.m. local time in Cuba -- again, 9:37 a.m. Eastern time as well -- a plane did leave Cuban air space. Apparently the pilot radioed back to the control tower letting the pilots -- letting the people on the ground know, anyway, that the plane was in the process of being hijacked. We have had reports that the plane was en route in a northwest fashion toward Florida. This, again, a simulation of the plane that we believe is the plane in question at this time, a Russian-made plane that was based there in Havana, Cuba.

Again, getting reports that it was en route to Florida, but, again, that has not been confirmed. We've been tracking the latest from WSVN and other sources there in southern Florida to find out the destination for this plane.

It has been said by local police that it was cleared to land at Opa-locka Airport. That's in the Miami, Florida area. However, no confirmation just yet on that. In addition, the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration is saying that the plane went down in international waters, which would seem to indicate that it went down somewhere between the northern tip of Cuba and the southern Florida Keys right there in the Florida Strait. But, again, no confirmation on that.

The other word we got, 14 people on board; Carl Rochelle in Washington told 16 people on board. But, again, as these facts continue to trickle in, we'll sift through and try to bring you the very latest. Carl also is standing by in Washington. We'll talk to him again briefly.

But first, here's more now. Here's Daryn once again.

KAGAN: Want to bring in now our Havana bureau chief, Lucia Newman, who's actually in Panama. But we can get her on the phone to help talk about what this kind of plane might be doing. Lucia covering a different story, but Lucia spending a number of years in Cuba.

Lucia, thanks for joining us.


KAGAN: Allison Flexner...

NEWMAN: Indeed...

KAGAN: Go ahead, go ahead.

NEWMAN: Well, I was just going to say that the fact that this was a Russian-made plane, or is a Russian-made plane, is not unusual at all. In fact, most of Cubana Airlines' fleet are made up of Russian planes, of small, large and of all kinds, in fact. And these are the planes that are used especially for internal flights, national flights from one part of the country to another. And in the past, it has happened that planes have been hijacked, but it's been a number of years since there has been an incident of this kind, Daryn. KAGAN: And isn't it from the old times the other way around, where if a plane is hijacked, the hijacker we used to think would be saying, take me to Cuba.

NEWMAN: Mostly. In the midst of the Cold War days, there were planes that were hijacked to Cuba, where various groups thought they would be able to reach a safe haven on that island. But it has also happened that planes have been hijacked from Cuba to the United States by people wanting to leave. In the past, the United States used to accept them without question. But, as you know, there have been negotiations between Cuba and the United States over the last few years, immigration accords, and it's to be seen now whether, if, indeed, that plane does reach the United States, whether it will be allowed to stay, whether the people on board will be sent back to Cuba, and just what the Cuban government will do. It will probably insist that the hijackers be returned to Cuba to stand trial if, indeed, they make it to the United States, Daryn.

KAGAN: Lucia, getting back to this type of plane -- and maybe we can put that picture up again -- a small plane, not the kind of plane here in the U.S. we would associate with carrying tourists from one place to another. But, as you say, in Cuba, that could be the case and is often the case.

NEWMAN: Yes, it certainly could. I have flown from Havana to Santiago and to other parts of the country, to some of the keys that are very popular with tourists. And while there has been a new fleet introduced recently with more modern planes, Russian planes have been used for that, small ones, for both tourists and for Cuban citizens that go from one part of the country to the other.

KAGAN: If indeed, Lucia, this does turn out to be a hijacking, you were mentioning that the Cuban authorities would want to get the hijacker or hijackers back. What kind of justice do -- or what kind of criminal prosecution would such a person face in Cuba?

NEWMAN: It depends who hijacked the plane, whether they were ordinary civilians or if they are military personnel of some sort. That would make all the difference, whether it would be a military trial or a civilian trial of sorts. But certainly they would be put on trial.

And I can't tell you off hand what the penalty would be, the maximum penalty could be if they were found guilty, but, at the moment, there's a law now that was introduced about a year ago and people who are found guilty of illegally trafficking with people could be given up to life imprisonment. So I imagine the hijacking would be at least that.

KAGAN: All right, Lucia Newman on assignment in Panama but joining us to talk about the story currently taking place between Cuba and the U.S. -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Daryn, thank you.

Again, we monitor all things out of southern Florida right now. The Associated Press reporting that it was just about right before 11:00 a.m. Eastern time, which would have been just 10 or 15 minutes ago, that that plane apparently disappeared from U.S. radar. We'll continue to monitor that development.

Also, WSVN now speaking with Coast Guard officials in southern Florida. We join their coverage now live.

PETTY OFFICER ROBERT SUDDARTH, U.S. COAST GUARD: ... southwest of Marquesas Key about 10:50, and we have diverted 110-foot patrol boat Monhegan. It was down in the area, actually did a repatriation this morning in Cuba. They were in the area and they're heading towards the scene right now. We also have a C-130 aircraft out of Tampa-Clearwater en route and a HA-65 Dolphin helicopter refueling in Key West at the naval air station there that's going to go out and do a search for the aircraft.

UNIDENTIFIED WSVN ANCHOR: What can you tell us about the waters in that area?

SUDDARTH: It was just like, as we say, whenever there's a possible rafting, I mean, it's very -- it's, you know, it's the Straits of Florida. There's a real heavy current and it's kind of dangerous. I mean, if there's people in the water, we're trying to get out there as quick as we can.

UNIDENTIFIED WSVN ANCHOR: What can you tell us about the depth of the water? Anything that would go toward the survivability of a forced landing in that area?

SUDDARTH: I don't really know. I don't have a chart in front of me. But, you know, it depends on if they're closer up to the Keys or to -- I'm sorry -- to the Cay. It's pretty shallow up in that area. I don't really know of a depth at this time.

WSVN ANCHOR: Now, you're telling us that the main vessel en route is 110-foot patrol boat, and you say it had just finished dropping off people in Cuba. Explain to us what it was doing.

SUDDARTH: It was doing repatriation, taking migrants that were intercepted at sea back to Cuba. It had just finished doing that. So it is in the area, and this is 60 miles southwest of Marquesas Key. So approximately 30 miles north of Cuba. I am just using the distance of 90 miles there. So it's in the area.

And we also have the two aircraft -- aircraft en route. I was just told that we are also -- we are sending basically every available asset. Those aren't the only three. We are sending everything we have towards this area.

WSVN ANCHOR: When do you estimate that Coast Guard aircraft or vessels will be able to reach this crash site?

SUDDARTH: Right now, we don't have any ETAs, as far as when anything is going to get there. Probably the aircraft would get there the fastest, and, like I said, the HA-65 helicopter is refueling in Key West right now. And it's probably -- it would probably be the first one. We don't have an ETA for when they would get there.

WSVN ANCHOR: All right, and to review then, this aircraft apparently crashed in the water just 30 miles north of the Cuban coast; correct?

SUDDARTH: We have it 60 miles southwest of Marquesas Key.

WSVN ANCHOR: Very good. We can now see that.

HEMMER: WSVN-TV talking with members of the U.S. Coast Guard there in southern Florida. Getting word now that apparently the plane was low on fuel. We talked about that about 20 minutes ago. But apparently, it is also a flow plane. It is designed to land on water. But apparently the pilot, at some point, may have radioed that the plane only had about an hour and half worth of fuel onboard.

Let's talk with Carl Rochelle now back in Washington.

Carl, what are picking up over the past 20 minutes?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a couple of things, Bill. It being a float plane would mean that it would be slower and have more drag need to consume more fuel. Now, the clean version of that, clean in aviation terms meaning without the floats, with just the landing gear out it is not a very clean aircraft, it roughly is 100 miles an hour, 100 miles an hour is its normal cruising speed. And it has a range of about 485 miles, nautical miles if it is fully fueled.

We don't know where it took off from, or how much fuel it had on board. As was suggested to me originally, there was some concern that it may not have had enough fuel to get all the way to the United States, assuming that that was its destination.

The word came apparently from controllers in Havana, who got call a call from the pilot of the aircraft. We believe that's the way it took place, saying that he was in a hijacked condition, that the aircraft had been hijacked, and that he was flying in a northwesterly to westerly direction, generally in the direction of the United States. And that there were 16 people onboard the aircraft. That was the last communication.

To last report, it hadn't shown up on U.S. radar screens yet, and there was no communication with U.S. authorities. We do hear now that the plane is down in the water that is the way that the Coast Guard is proceeding on this, and looking to see what kind of assistance they can offer.

If it is a float plane, Bill , and it was a successful water landing, then they should be OK for a while. It's designed to stay afloat for you know, for a considerable amount of time. In fact, forever, as long as you keep the water pumped out of the floats.

HEMMER: Point well taken, it is inconclusive whether or not the plane went down as a result of a crash, low fuel, or if indeed it landed successfully on the water. Carl, stand by there. Want to have you comeback in a second here.

But first going to talk with the Coast Guard. Here's Daryn for that now.

KAGAN: And with that, we do have Petty Officer Scott Carr on the phone with us from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Officer Carr, can you hear me?


KAGAN: What can you tell us? Can you confirm that this Cuban plane is down in the water?

CARR: The Coast Guard was notified by Miami Center approximately about 10:50 this morning that this plane about 60 miles southwest of Marquesas Key with reportedly 18 people onboard.

KAGAN: Is that U.S. water?

CARR: No, that will be international waters.

KAGAN: So what happens from here, in terms of rescue?

CARR: Right now, the Coast Guard is sending all available assets to that area. I do know we do have the Coast Guard cutter Monhegan (ph) en route with the Coast Guard aircraft that had already been given orders to launch. And we are identifying what other assets we have in the area, are going to divert them there, just to provide whatever assistance we can.

I have a feeling responders in the area will probably be the first people on scene. Our main concern is rescuing any possible survivors and getting those people out of the water safely.

KAGAN: What kind of time frame are we talking about, of help getting to this plane?

CARR: I really don't have an ETA just yet. The Monhegan was doing a repatriation this morning. (inaudible) They had finished that up, and were leaving port. So, you know, I really don't know their exact location. I just can't...

KAGAN: Do we have any word on the condition of the plane or the people onboard?

CARR: No. Like I said before, all we really know about the aircraft is that it is an Antiopt (ph) two. It is a former Russian aircraft. It was used to train parachutist.

KAGAN: Officer, if you can just stand by for a second. I would like to bring in Carl Rochelle. He covers aviation issues for us here at CNN. And he has a question for you as well. Carl, go ahead. ROCHELLE: Petty Officer Carr, I wonder if you could tell us, I know that you have not had a great deal of communication, but has anyone seen the aircraft. We understand that it was a float plane. Did it land safely on the water? Do you know that? or is it a crash landing? what kind of situation are you looking at there?

CARR: We really don't know yet, and we won't know until we get one of our assets on scene. The information we got was from Miami Center probably also via Havana Center, those two air centers have been talking to each other, and passing information back and forth. Miami Center, like I said, contacted us 10:15 just saying that the vessel or the aircraft had gone down.

ROCHELLE: Petty officer, do you know if the aircraft ever showed up on U.S. radar? We understood, earlier on, it had not. But did it show up on U.S. radar?

KAGAN: Are you still with us Petty Officer Carr?

CARR: I'm here. I don't know that.

ROCHELLE: You've not been in communication with it?

CARR: The Coast Guard had not, no.

KAGAN: Carl Rochelle, thank you very much.

Petty Officer Carr, since this is international waters, what will be the routine that will take place once the Coast Guard does reach these people, in terms of not just the rescue, but what happens to these people? will they be brought to U.S. or sent back to Cuba right away?

CARR: None of that has been worked out just yet. Like I said before, our main concern is getting out there and survivors, treating them for whatever medical needs they may have. If we need to bring people into either the United States to treat them medically, we will do so. Or, you know, we will get them to the closest medical facility that can handle whatever injuries they may have.

KAGAN: All right, and as you said before, we have no word on the condition of the people, the 18 people onboard that plane.

CARR: Correct.

KAGAN: All right, Petty Officer Scott Carr, with the U.S. Coast Guard, we appreciate your time and your additional information today -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Daryn. Quickly again, 9:37 a.m. Eastern time, the facts we understand right now, a plane taking off from an airport in northwestern Cuba, radioed back to the ground, letting people know on the ground that indeed the plane was being hijacked at this time.

The word we have is that it was flying at a northwestern pattern toward Florida. And about 10:50 a.m. Eastern time, about 30 minutes ago, that plane disappeared from radar.

The Coast Guard now en route over the Florida Strait, international waters right now, trying to find out what has happened now with the 18 people onboard the Russian-built plane. We will get a quick timeout. Back with more in two minutes. Stay with us.



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