PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (AP) — A man who saw a plane flown by an Indiana teen who was killed during an around-the-world flight attempt says the aircraft was flying low but didn’t show any obvious signs of distress before diving into the ocean off American Samoa.
Bert Thompson of Matuu, American Samoa, told The Associated Press on Thursday he saw no fire, explosions or emergency lighting on the plane carrying 17-year-old Haris Suleman and his father, 58-year-old Babar Suleman.
“It just went down — dived into the ocean,” said Thompson, who saw the plane while sitting at a bus stop in his shoreline village.
Haris Suleman’s body was recovered shortly after Tuesday’s crash. Crews are still searching for his father.
Thompson said he thought the plane would gain altitude, but it dived downward. He ran home and called police, and patrol boats arrived about an hour later, he said.
Thompson said he didn’t see the plane hit the water, or see the Sulemans. It was too far offshore and too dark with no moon in the sky, he said.
Anguished family members and friends pleaded for more resources Thursday in hopes of finding Babar Suleman.
“Time is of the essence,” family friend Azher Khan said at a news conference outside the suburban Indianapolis home of Haris and Babar Suleman. “Babar is a fighter and I know that he’s over there clinging to hope, hoping that someone will come for rescue.”
The U.S. Coast Guard said Thursday it had found wreckage from the plane, which crashed Tuesday night shortly after taking off from Pago Pago, American Samoa.
A C-130 pilot spotted sections of the plane’s fuselage and other aircraft components Wednesday night in a remote section of the ocean, spokesman Gene Maestas in Honolulu said, and ships later recovered some of that debris.
Divers searching for Babar Suleman went to the last known location of the plane’s distress signal but found the 300-foot water too deep, said American Samoa Homeland Security Department Director Iuniasolua Savusa.
“It’s beyond their capabilities at this point,” Savusa said. “So right now, we are doing all we can to deploy methods we have on island.”
That includes casting a net to the bottom of the ocean and dragging it to see if it captures any wreckage.
Haris Suleman had hoped to set the record for the fastest circumnavigation around the world in a single-engine airplane with the youngest pilot in command. His journey was also a fundraiser to help build schools in his father’s native Pakistan.
The Sulemans left Indiana on June 19 and were expected to arrive back in the U.S. on Saturday.
Maestas said a Coast Guard plane was working with two ships to search for debris. He said the search area was originally about a mile off the coast of American Samoa but has since expanded.
“The debris is scattering because of wind and currents so the search area is widening a little bit,” he said. “There’s a number of small islands, very small islands, in this area, but it’s very remote.”
As plans for welcome-home celebrations shifted to mourning, family and friends defended the father-son team and their mission, saying they had known the dangers when they set out and had trained for them.
Babar Suleman had long dreamed of flying around the world. He and his son decided to make the adventure a fundraiser for the Citizens Foundation, which has built 1,000 schools in Pakistan.
Khan said Haris Suleman’s brother was scheduled to arrive Friday in American Samoa. He said 29-year-old Cyrus Suleman will visit a hospital in the capital city of Pago Pago where his brother’s body was taken following Tuesday’s crash.
Khan said the family was not giving up hope that Babar Suleman would be found alive.
“We believe in miracles. We believe in prayers. We believe in hope,” he said.