First responders recall amazing rescue of 143 people from plane

Those first on scene of plane rescue recount harrowing moments

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – First responders who helped save the lives of the 143 people on board the Miami Air plane that went skidding into the St. Johns River Friday night say it's their job but not something they will soon forget. 

More than 100 firefighters from across the city worked together to quickly get passengers off the wing of the airplane and back to shore.

They worked in the rain at night to get everyone off the Miami Air Boeing 737 wing, into rafts and back to dry land.

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"I'm still kind of in disbelief," said firefighter Michael Lapine with First Coast Navy Fire and Emergency Services. He was one of the first rescuers in the water. His crew immediately called for backup when they saw how big the rescue would be. That's when firefighters from nearby Jacksonville Fire and Rescue crews at Station 23 joined them.

"I was scared. I was pretty terrified. Actually, when I heard the kids crying and it was still popping off lightning, someone said there was fuel in the water, I felt like we're running out of time," firefighter Russell Russ said.

"The first thing I saw was a baby because I'm a mom, too," said Regena Manasco, an engineer with Jacksonville Fire Rescue. " I was like, oh my gosh, let's get that baby off of that raft. Of course, as soon as we got the baby off, which was the first person to come ashore, the mama was like, 'That's my baby. Let me off.' The other people on the raft helped. Also, there were three little boys. I have a son that's 10 years old, so I'm like, children and all the babies come off."

Firefighters in Jacksonville worked together from different stations across town to do what they are trained to do: save lives.

"You couldn't tell if it was a JFRD firefighter or a base firefighter," First Coast Navy Fire Chief Mark Brusoe said.

"Everyone was upbeat, thankful, gracious. (It was) overwhelming, They just couldn't say thank you enough to everyone that was there. It was a total team effort," firefighter and emergency medical technician Kevin Fitzgerald said.

Justin Smith and his crew started heading that way before they were asked.

"I happened to be walking through the bay and heard the call go out. So, I came in. That's one of the things we do around here. We hear something going on, and we know they're going to need help or we're going to need a lot of resources, we like to head that way," Smith said.

Two cats and a dog did not survive the incident.

"As soon as we got word there were pets in the belly, those guys jumped in and went to the only hatch they could find. They swam in there (but there) was nothing they could do, unfortunately,"  Russ said.

Firefighters who responded say they never thought they would go to a call like this but they've trained year-round for these types of situations.

"To be honest with you, the call first originated from my perspective. At first, I was dispatched to a marine incident and I truly believed I was going to something that was an overturned boat in the river. I had no idea it was an airplane," Battalion Chief Donald Blanton said.

It was a shocking scene for Jacksonville Fire and Rescue crews as first responders worked together with the First Coast Navy to get everyone off the plane, out of the water and safely ashore.

"I'm just glad that we were there in their time of need. We could show them our most professional care and compassion, to make sure that through this whole traumatizing ordeal, we can give them the utmost care and respect and get them where they need to be," said Fitzgerald said.

Despite the loss of the pets, this was a successful rescue with all the people making it off alive, including a 3-month-old baby.


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