C. Phillip Hollstein recalled Friday that the plane had just taken off from Molokai and was making a turn toward Honolulu when it seemed like something on the plane broke.
"We probably weren't a minute out," he said. "It wasn't real loud or anything. Just a muffled bang. Then we were a glider."
The plane lost power, he said, and the pilot maneuvered a water landing on the plane's belly.
"Everyone was real quiet. We hit (the water) and it was all about getting the belts off," he said, describing how everyone started putting on life jackets and remained on the plane until it seemed to start sinking.
"There wasn't panic or anything. It was very orderly," he said. "It wasn't like any of the movies or the TV shows."
Bobbing in the water, Hollstein noticed the pilot and seven other passengers seemed fine. "I didn't want to sit out there bobbing, so I figured I'd take a shot at going to the shoreline."
He guesses the swim to the rugged shoreline took an hour and a half. He was surprised to hear later that one of the passengers, Hawaii Health Director Loretta Fuddy, had later died.
"She was doing fine out of the airplane," Hollstein said. "Her assistant was really watching her. He was taking care of her."
Fuddy, 65, was the only fatality out of nine people on the plane that crashed Wednesday. An autopsy was expected to be conducted Friday.
Hollstein said the pilot is the reason nearly everyone survived. "He did everything right," said Hollstein, of Kailua. "He set it up for the best crash-landing you could do."
When Coast Guard rescuers flew to the crash, there was no sign of the single-engine plane.
"There was nothing recognizable immediately as aircraft debris, just general debris in the water," U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Weston Red Elk said Thursday. "I'm not sure at what point the main body of the aircraft submerged, but it was not present when we got there."
Red Elk's team of rescue swimmers and pilots maneuvered two helicopters and an HC-130 airplane about 50 feet above the water, using the flares as a guide to locate two clusters of passengers. Rescue swimmer Mark Peer lowered himself toward a man about 100 yards from the plane who looked to be in his 70s. As he swam to the passenger, the man appeared calm, Peer said.
"He was happy to see us — just kind of grabbed my arm and gave me a thumbs up," Peer said.
But the next passenger Peer tried to save, Hawaii Health Director Loretta Fuddy, was not responsive and he couldn't find a pulse.
"It was not a good feeling," he said.
In the final moments of her life, Fuddy clung to the hand of her deputy, Keith Yamamoto, while floating in the water. Fuddy, who gained notoriety in 2011 for her role in making President Barack Obama's birth certificate public, held hands with Yamamoto as he tried to help her relax, said the Rev. Patrick Killilea, who consoled Yamamoto after the ordeal.
"He recounted how he said he helped Loretta into her life jacket and he held her hand for some time," the priest said. "They were all floating together, and she let go and there was no response from her."
The crash occurred when the single engine of the 2002 Cessna Grand Caravan failed soon after it took off from Molokai and made its turn toward Honolulu, said Richard Schuman, owner of Makani Kai Air, operator of the plane.
"There's only one engine on that plane, and when it quits on you, you just have to deal with it in that moment," he said.
Schuman said he did not know why the engine failed. The aircraft had no previous problems, he said.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said investigators planned to speak with the pilot, whose name was not released, and some passengers about the crash.
The location of the wreckage, combined with wind and wave conditions, likely means the plane won't be recovered, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie said Fuddy was loved and respected. About 100 Health Department employees lined up to pay their respects to Fuddy's family members, who attended a gathering in her memory at the department's parking lot Thursday.
After the crash, three survivors were transported by helicopter to a Honolulu hospital. Two declined to be medically evacuated, officials said.
Hollstein said he and a local couple were taken to the Molokai hospital, where they took hot showers and dried their clothing. They were given a place to rest until they could get rooms at the island's only hotel.
Fuddy and Yamamoto were on the flight after an annual visit to Kalaupapa, where the state exiled leprosy patients until 1969. The area is accessible only by plane or mule.
The leprosy settlement on Kalaupapa is still run by the Health Department, though only a few former leprosy patients continue to live there.
Associated Press writers Oskar Garcia and Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.
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