‘It wasn’t our time’: Hawaiian pilots tell of crash, shark and 21 hours in open sea

The two pilots survived overnight in the ocean, swimming more than 20 miles through jellyfish and a shark, after their plane crashed off the coast of Hawaii

Thirty minutes after the plane crashed in the wide stretch of ocean between the Hawaiian islands, David McMahons life vest started to deflate. Over the next 20 hours, the ocean sent him and his injured co-pilot swimming through jellyfish, a shark and rolling waves that hid them wave by wave from the helicopters circling above.

They kept swimming.

McMahon, 26, and Sydnie Uemoto, 23, were both pilots at Mokulele Airlines but barely knew each other before they took off together in a two-engine plane on 13 July, en route from Oahu to the Big Island, where Uemoto hoped to celebrate her fathers birthday. Neither pilot was an amateur, and when one of the engines failed, they knew what to do. When the second failed, they could only send distress signals as the plane fell thousands of feet toward deep water, 25 miles from the shore.

I remember hitting the water and that noise and seeing the water come up over the windshield, Uemoto told Mileka Lincoln of Hawaii News Now in a lengthy interview. I was kind of in a daze for a little while seeing the water come over the cockpit and I just kind of had to register what happened and David was on the wing saying, Come on, we got to get out.

The first hours

Uemotos head was injured when she hit the dashboard, and she feared the blood would start to attract sharks. But the plane was sinking fast, so they grabbed life vests and were in the water. Within minutes the wreck had sunk.

I wasnt too afraid yet, McMahon said, confident that rescue crews had heard their distress call. We just survived a plane crash, thats the worst of it. Well just wait for coast guard to come.

But half an hour after McMahon pulled the CO2 cartridge to inflate his life vest, the tab broke and left a hole. He had to swim and tread water. After a while, he kept the life vests inflating tube in his mouth:every time I would exhale I would just exhale into the life vest, just to keep it filled.

After a few hours, they saw helicopters and planes but the waves and glare ofthe afternoon sun hid them. Every time they flew over I waved my vest over my head, McMahon told Hawaii News Now, which is part of the islands TV network. I was treading water and just trying to get their attention, but also at that point we were in white caps.

Uemoto described it as kind of heartbreaking to see it happen again and again as they rolled in the waves. You get hopeful, and then you see them go. And you see them not turn around and it just as quickly as you came up, it just goes right back down.

The mountains of the Big Island were visible, if hazy, in the distance. After eight hours of holding his own with a faulty life vest, McMahon was on the verge of collapse. Night fell, and the cold Pacific sank into their muscles.

I remember just asking Sydnie, Sydnie, I need to stop. Im freezing. Im exhausted. I cant kick any more, he said. She would stop every once in a while, just shortly but she was like, We cant stop. We got to keep going. I may have been the one strong in the beginning, but overnight I wouldnt have made it without her.

Making it through the night

Eventually they discovered a system. I was able to rest my neck on her ankles. I had her ankles like this around my neck and I was just on my back and I kicked and she was swimming, McMahon said, crediting Uemoto with his survival.

Jellyfish rose to the surface through the night, stinging Uemotos arms as she helped keep herself and McMahon moving in the direction of the island. Uemoto said that shed heard the swarms can ward off large predators, though box jellyfish alone kill dozens more people than sharks a year.

But in what light they had, McMahon saw schools of cute little black fish following us and then all of a sudden, they were gone.

What followed the fish, he said, was right in front of me, probably six to 10 feet down. It was just a big black shadow like six to seven feet, and immediately I knew it was a shark.

I didnt say anything right away but she could tell from my eyes, said McMahon.

The shark circled for a tense 10 to 15 minutes, they remembered, during which the pair planned for the worst. Uemoto asked McMahon what he would do if it came close. Hes like, Im going to look it in the eye, she recalled, adding that she thought: OK, David, you look him in the eye. Im going to keep swimming.

Finally rescued

But the shark left the pilots to their fate in the ocean, and they continued struggling toward the shore. They were making plans hit the beach by noon for lunch and family phone calls, make it by dinner, you know? Were not staying the night in the ocean until the morning light brought another round of helicopters and search planes.

Twenty-one hours after the crash, one of the searchers finally saw them. We waved and we waved and waved, Uemoto said, and we watched it and it just made its circle and we knew they saw us.

At 11.35am, only a mile and a half from the shore and after more than 20 miles of swimming and floating in the open ocean, they were pulled from the sea.

Uemoto and McMahon broke down into tears. We both knew we werent it wasnt our time, McMahon said. I think that was the biggest role. We just both knew we were going to go back and just be a family.

Read more: <a href="www.theguardian.com

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