By Theresa Braine
MERIDA, Mexico – Sixteen Seattle-area tourists on a Caribbean cruise died during a side trip to visit Mayan ruins when their plane crashed in the eastern Mexican state of Yucatan. Three Mexican crew members also died.
The cruise aboard the Maasdam was for University of Washington football fans who planned to attend Saturday’s game against the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl, according to cruise operator Holland America Line. The game was postponed because of Tuesday’s terror attacks.
“This is a terrible tragedy for the loved ones and friends and our entire community,” said A. Kirk Lanterman, the line’s chairman.
Yucatan Gov. Patricio Patron told a news conference that he saw no connection between the accident Wednesday and the hijackings of four jetliners in the United States a day earlier.
The Massdam had left Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., on Sept. 9 with 1,151 passengers and had stopped at Grand Cayman island before arriving Wednesday morning in Cozumel, a Caribbean island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula famed for its coral reefs.
The 16 tourists boarded a twin-engine LET 410 turboprop at midday and flew without incident to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, according to Fernando Vargas, director general of the Aero Ferinco airline.
They took off for the 40-minute return trip under a clear, sunny sky at about 5 p.m.
“There were no indications of an emergency,” Vargas said.
The plane was flying at about 500 feet when it began turning onto a course requested by the air traffic controller, he added. “It did not stop turning” and suddenly plunged to the ground, killing all 19 people on board.
“We don’t know what happened,” Vargas said. Mexican federal aviation officials were investigating.
Vargas said pilot Jose Luis Romero had 7,100 hours flying time and co-pilot Aurelio Perez Escalante more than 1,000.
The administrator of the Chichen Itza airport, Eduardo Alfaro de la Torre, told the government news agency Notimex that the pilot of the plane had not radioed for help before the accident.
State police in the city of Valladolid, near the crash site, said the bodies had been recovered and were being returned to the state capital, Merida, for autopsies.
Holland America spokeswoman Rose Abello said the Massdam left Cozumel late Wednesday night, but said the line had left people on shore to help deal with the case.
“The feedback I received, the passengers are upset. The captain issued a statement. They held a moment of silence. There will be a memorial-type service,” she said.
Aero Ferinco, based on Cozumel, flies in the Yucatan Peninsula, to Guatemala and Cuba. It specializes in chartered air tours.
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