OCEAN CITY – Some questions were put to rest and rumors addressed this week when emergency officials met to review what took place when a plane holding two of Ocean City Police Department’s own crashed in the ocean last month.
On Thursday, an After Action Review of the tragic aircraft incident a few weeks ago in Ocean City was held at the Public Safety Building with all participating agencies in attendance.
Ocean City Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald went over a chronological review of the incident that took place.
“Whenever we have a critical incident, it is important to get everybody back together again to get everybody on the same page. When you are actively involved, and the clock is ticking, you’re missing the big picture,” he said. “What can we do in the future should this happen again? How can we be better? That is the whole reason of being here today, to improve the future. We can’t change the past.”
On Sunday, June 20, at 4:02 p.m., an aircraft, a Nanchang CJ-6A, crashed into the ocean approximately 400 yards off the beach at 130th Street Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP) units responded immediately and police and fire disciplines were dispatched. At 4:06, a private vessel, the Sea Rocket, was the first on the scene.
At 4:11 p.m., police command was established by Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Capt. Kevin Kirstein and fire command was established by Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD) Water Rescue Unit member Lt. Del Baker on the 130th Street beach. Only a couple minutes later, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) was underway and arrived on scene by 4:25 with Ocean City personnel on board, a diver and two medical providers.
At 4:33 p.m., a preliminary crash location was first identified by a fuel-oil slick and bubbling. At 4:35, Unified Command was established of Theobald, OCPD, OCFD, and Maryland State Police (MSP). MSP Dive member Sgt. C. Williams arrived on the scene. The incident operation was discussed and requested OCFD Dive Team assistance for four divers to support the operation. The OCFD divers were approved by Unified Command at 4:49.
By 5:02 p.m., the OCFD Dive Team assembled at 15th St. Fire Headquarters. At 5:06 the OCFD Dive Team was en-route to the Worcester County boat ramp located in West Ocean City to assemble and deploy with the MSP Dive Team, and by the end of the hour OCFD Dive Team was cancelled.
“That was a decision by the OCFD. I have to stand by the chief that makes the decision, whether I agree or disagree. We work together,” Theobald said.
At 6:10 p.m., the MSP Dive Team equipped with Ocean City radios were underway and arrived at the scene of the crash by 7 p.m. to begin side scan sonar operations to locate the plane. At 9 p.m., after scanning the area the aircraft was believed to be located 400 yards off the 130th Street beach in 31 feet of water. Due to darkness and ocean conditions no dive operations were conducted. The crash location was marked and units returned to stations with operations scheduled to resume Monday at 7 a.m.
On Monday morning, the Unified Command of MSP, OCPD, USCG, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Emergency Services and a private salvage contractor met on 130th St. beach. At 8:30 a.m. MSP dive team and USCG were on the scene of the aircraft. By 12:03 p.m., the first victim was recovered followed by the second victim about an hour later. At 1:20 p.m., dive operations were completed and vessels returned to dock with the victims, who were both OCPD’s Tom Geoghegan and Joshua Adickes.
On Monday, the aircraft was scheduled to be recovered by the private salvage contractor when weather and tide conditions improved, and on Thursday, July 4, at 5 p.m., the aircraft was recovered and transported to a pre-determined location for incident investigation.
“It is an unfortunate incident. We train, we exercise, we mitigate these problems and I think you all did a very good job in how we handled this issue,” Theobald said. “It is a personal issue … it effected this family.”
Theobald was proud to say the Unified Command system worked and decisions were made timely and appropriately. He added the operations was conducted in a similar way parallel to the Ocean City Air Show special event that is planned and exercised together by the supporting agencies.
“Reality came to life that day but you were better prepared because we exercise and train together, and we do it on a regular basis,” Theobald said.
City Council Secretary Mary Knight asked why the Ocean City Dive Team was not involved in the rescue operation on Sunday.
“There was discussion between the MSP Dive Team and Chief [Chris] Larmore [OCFD]. At that point, after discussion, a decision was made that the dive team would not be part of the recovery process … It is a decision that a chief has the authority to make and we need to support that decision,” Theobald said.
MSP Dive Team Commander Lt. Krah Plunkert stepped in to explain by the time MSP was going to arrive on the scene of the crash it was known the rescue operation would cross the fine line into a recovery mission, at which point the crash site then becomes a crime scene.
“As soon as we know it is turning into a recovery … I have to sit down with the fire chief and say … when it becomes a recovery it is then turned over to the State Police as a criminal incident. This plane crash you have to treat as a crime scene and it is a criminal investigation until we can determine it is not something that was purposely done,” Plunkett said.
Retired Ocean City Emergency Manager Buzzy Bayles asked why the new fire boat was not deployed. The fire boat’s absence at several recent events has been questioned privately, including during a boat propeller accident in June when Kirstein utilized his private boat to assist in the rescue operation of the boater.
“I don’t know,” Theobald replied. “I cannot answer that.”
OCBP Captain Butch Arbin explained that once OCBP had received information from reliable sources on the beach of the general vicinity the crash took place, guards paddled out to a crossing point where they discovered a fuel-oil slick and bubbling. The guards did not attempt a free dive due to the amount of fuel and oil in the water.
At that point, Bayles then asked, if OCBP had pinpointed the location, why the Ocean City Dive Team was told to stand down.
Plunkert responded a fuel-oil slick only tells the general area of the crash site due to its tidal movement, not the exact location.
“You are not positive it’s there. It could be several hundred yards down,” he said. “I know when we got there we did not have an exact pinpoint on where that plane was … as a dive commander, I am not going to put a diver in the water unless I have a specific location, not one that is random of several hundred feet. From the information I still have today, I don’t believe that even if we sent their dive team out, if they had a specific location…I don’t think there was an exact location.”
USCG Officer in Charge at the Ocean City Station, Master Chief Ross Fowle, pointed out the OCBP did not discover the fuel-oil slick until 40 minutes after the time of the crash.
“That is a risk assessment because in all honesty if your under water for 40 minutes … you have to focus on one spot for someone who is potentially underwater and could miss them on the surface trying to get themselves to the beach … putting divers in the water 40 minutes after the incident is not really that accurate. The risk to the diver is probably greater than the chance they have to rescue somebody,” he said.
Master Chief Fowle added that in the past the USCG has worked with MSP Dive Team on many occasions becoming familiar with each other’s procedures
“It would probably be good if the chief [Larmore] and I got together and worked out some training with the OCFD divers so that if we do use Coast Guard platforms we would have that working relationship already established,” he said.
Plunkert agreed and invited OCFD to also train with the MSP.
“We are well supported by the town and the Mayor and City Council. Our dive team is well equipped and well trained but I think moving forward we need to train with other agencies and we need to do it regularly. That is so important,” said OCFD Lt. Del Baker, a member of the water rescue unit.