Four people rescued after hours in life raft

Stranded airplane passengers were on their way to Alaska

Posted: Monday, July 09, 2001

MOSCOW - The American pilot of a plane on its way to Alaska that fell into the sea off Russia's Far East struggled for 15 hours to keep afloat in a life raft with his three Japanese passengers before hearing the sounds of the ship that rescued them.

The pilot, Mike Smith, a native of Boise, Idaho, said by telephone that he felt his strength leaving him after fighting the frigid waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, and lay down for a brief rest when he heard the distant rumble.

The four were picked up by the Russian ship and taken to the town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan.

Two of the passengers had shown signs of hypothermia, Smith said. The pilot was exhausted after struggling all night to keep water out of the raft and to keep everyone warm.

"Every muscle in my body aches," Smith said after checking into a hotel in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. "I wasn't used to so much exertion in a 15-hour period."

Smith and his passengers were finishing a round-the-world tour in a Pilatus PC-12 aircraft that started in Canada on June 11. They had been heading from Japan to Alaska, via the Russian Far East city of Magadan, when radar contact was lost Sunday.

The plane showed no sign of trouble until its single engine unexpectedly went into an "overspeed," a condition when the engine exceeds its design power, and effectively self-destructed, Smith said.

Passenger Arinori Yamagata told Japan's national NHK television that the pilot smoothly landed on the sea surface with little damage but a few bruises to some of the passengers. The four put on life vests, loaded three or four days' worth of supplies on the raft, and prepared for a long drift. The other passengers were identified as Katsuyoshi Ida and Haruko Kikukawa.

In the early hours after leaving the plane, Ida told jokes, trying to keep his fellow travelers' spirits up, Smith said.

"But when the sun set, reality set in," he said. "It was going to be a long night, and I had a good starlit night to think about life."

Throughout the night, he battled to clear water out of the raft. By around 2 a.m., Smith said he grew so exhausted he decided to pull a cover over the raft so the four could stay out of the wind. Then he heard an engine.

"I thought it was my imagination, because we were also hearing waves, the wind, and the cover was making a rattling noise," Smith said.

But the noise was coming from a Russian container ship. Smith fired three or four flares to direct the ship to the raft.

The pilot was the last to board the rescue ship.

"I sat exhausted for two or three minutes," he said. "I was breathing so hard because I was trying to get the other passengers out first."

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