GREEN COVE SPRINGS, Fla. - A Miami Air International plane that ended up in the St. Johns River after a crash landing nearly a week ago was "airborne" Thursday for likely the last time.
The Boeing 737, which had flown for 18 years, was towed on a barge Wednesday 18 miles up the river from Naval Air Station Jacksonville to Green Cove Springs, passing under the Buckman Bridge along the way.
The jet remained on the barge overnight and was lightened before it was hoisted into the air Thursday by cranes and moved to shore at Reynolds Industrial Park.
Once the barge arrived at the park Wednesday, crews from Mobro Marine began removing things like luggage to lessen the weight of the plane and make it easier to lift.
Other pieces of the plane, including the wheels and emergency exit slide, were moved to shore from a separate barge Thursday morning.
Moran Environmental Recovery LLC is handling the operation. The barges and tugboats used are supplied by Mobro Marine.
The companies said it would be a methodical process and they would take time to make sure it was done right.
Now that the plane is on the dock, it will be fenced off and National Transportation Safety Board inspectors will take it apart to document the condition of equipment and systems, according to Ted McGowan, executive director of Reynolds.
McGowan said that after the federal inspectors complete their physical examination -- probably a two-week process -- the plane will be scrapped.
The jet skidded off a runway at NAS Jacksonville Friday night, crashing through the seawall and landing in the river. It took cranes on two barges most of Tuesday to lift the jet onto a barge.
The NTSB recovered the cockpit voice recorder that had been in the belly of the plane below the water line for four days.
Once on the barge, the 45-ton aircraft was moved away from the end of runway 10/28 so air operations at the Navy base could resume Wednesday morning.
On Wednesday, the plane began its 18-mile river journey and, just before 10 a.m, it slowly passed under the Buckman Bridge. The Florida Highway Patrol had urged motorists not to stop or slow down on the bridge to see it or take pictures, and traffic appeared to flow normally during the spectacle.
The barge was surrounded by patrol boats to make sure private boaters couldn't get too close.
Lifelong Jacksonville resident Deborah McLaughlin was among those living on the river to watch the barge go by.
"I was glad there weren’t any problems going underneath the Buckman," McLaughlin said. "I think it’s interesting to have the opportunity to see something like this.”
Great teamwork @FLHSMV @FHPJacksonville @MyFWC @USCGSoutheast @NASJax_ to move the aircraft safely under the Buckman Bridge. Thank you Jacksonville for staying safe during this detail. pic.twitter.com/wuwhK6KKt0 — FHPJacksonville (@FHPJacksonville) May 8, 2019
"I’ll probably never see it again in probably a lifetime," Debby Piasta said as she watched with more than a dozen others gathered at Walter Jones Park, off Mandarin Road.
Moran Environmental Recovery has done large-scale salvage operations for the Navy before. It salvaged a tugboat in the river in 2016.
Before workers could start the removal process for the plane, all fuel had to be removed, an effort that was complicated by stormy weather Sunday and the fact that the aircraft remained partially submerged in the river, officials said.
All the fuel was out of the tanks by Monday night, and three barges, two of which had cranes aboard, were moved into place Tuesday morning. Straps were placed under the fuselage, and the plane was slowly lifted higher in the water.
A Navy spokesperson said 1,200 gallons of fuel was removed, which would mean about 400 gallons leaked into the river. Crews had set up booms to contain the spill, and it's uncertain how much of the fuel was recovered from the water.
The St. Johns Riverkeeper said earlier in the week that environmental damage appeared to be minimal.
A Navy spokesperson said the Navy is not paying for the removal of the plane. The cost is being covered by Miami Air's insurance company. She did not say how much it cost.
None of the 143 people onboard had serious injuries from Friday night's crash landing. A dog and two cats died in the cargo hold.
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