With Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis pledging to probe the protocols and procedures, and the agencies involved in the search and rescue efforts for missing pilot Byron Ferguson, 34, and the Piper Aztec plane he went down in on November 8, Eyewitness News has outlined a comprehensive timeline of events since the incident, which among other things, highlights some instances of miscommunication and a lack of communication by authorities.
The search and rescue efforts has been strongly criticized by the Ferguson family.
Quarters of the public and even some politicians have joined the chorus of those questioning whether authorities made missteps throughout the search and rescue, and ultimate recovery efforts.
As of yesterday, a deep-sea diver joined the search and recovery efforts, diving up to 400-plus feet in the area of the crash site, according to RBDF Commander Shone Pinder.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 8
9:27 p.m. — Unconfirmed reports reached Eyewitness News that a plane had crashed in waters off Love Beach.
10:05 p.m. — Eyewitness News arrived on scene at Nirvana Beach, where Assistant Commissioner of Police Leamond Deleveaux and Fire Services Director Chief Superintendent Walter Evans confirmed authorities were awaiting the Royal Bahamas Defence Force to assist with search and rescue efforts following a reported plane crash.
10:14 p.m. — Strobe lights from at least five Defence Force vessels closed in on an area approximately a quarter of a mile from the shoreline. Minutes later, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter joined the search effort.
After midnight — Addressing reporters, ACP Deleveaux confirmed authorities found parts of the aircraft, however, no survivors had been found. Noting that it was “very dark at night”, Deleveaux said the search will suspend and continue at first light to protect the safety of responders.
The U.S. Coast Guard helicopter continued to make passes over the area.
The RBDF vessels and authorities on the beach eventually cleared the area shortly before 1 a.m.
(During a press conference on November 16 — eight days later — RBDF officials refuted that the search effort suspended. According to Commander Pinder, the Defence Force response team left to refuel, but returned to resume the search.)
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 9
1:05 a.m. — Well after authorities cleared the scene, relatives of the pilot, including his mother Agnes Ferguson, reporters and many other bystanders remained. A short time later, a uniformed officer asked for those gathered to leave the area, advising that it was private property. He apologized as he made the request. The exact time RBDF divers began conducting their search Friday morning remained unclear until the November 16th press conference where RBDF officials said dives began before 6:00 a.m.
6:56 a.m. — Police said in a statement that it received reports from Air Traffic Control shortly after 8:00 p.m. that a plane had disappeared from its radar in the area of Nirvana Beach, shortly before the pilot reported that the “door to the aircraft had flown open”. Police also said the search and rescue team located “the aircraft” and efforts to locate survivors were ongoing.
Additionally, that report said two people were missing.
8:35 a.m. — The Air Accident Investigation Department said in a separate statement that Air Traffic Control reported it lost radar contact with a six-seater Piper Aztec aircraft at 9:03 p.m., moments prior to the pilot communicating that he was experiencing difficulties. The AAID also reported that the initial search efforts resulted in authorities “locating the aircraft submerged in waters north west of the airfield”. However, the AIID did not confirm the number of people aboard.
The search effort extended from the Compass Point area to Nirvana Beach and further west, according to authorities. ACP Deleveaux also confirmed to Eyewitness News Friday that when divers returned to the same coordinates where the aircraft was originally spotted Thursday night, it was no longer there and believed to have shifted due to the change in tide.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10
The RBDF continued search efforts using patrol vessels and a drone. Divers were unable to conduct a search due to “adverse weather”, according to the RBDF. These details were not learned, however, until November 16 during a joint press conference at police headquarters.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 11
11 a.m. — Relatives of the pilot expressed concern over the handling of the search and rescue effort during a press conference on Nirvana Beach. They also criticized the level of communication from authorities, saying that prior to a meeting with RBDF Commodore Tellis Bethel Sunday morning, no one had updated them. Relatives said they had gleaned information from their own sources and the media up to that point. Relatives also claimed that authorities had the facts wrong and insisted that Byron was the sole person on the plane.
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 13
Five days after the crash, Kendal Dorsett, the lead investigator attached to AIID, said while initial information was unable to determine who was aboard or whether a flight plan was filed, further investigation in conjunction with information from the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States confirmed there was a flight plan and Byron was the sole occupant of the aircraft.
Outside the Churchill Building around 9:30 a.m., Minister of National Security Marvin Dames defended the Defence Force’s handling of the search and rescue effort. While reports from authorities had advised up to that point that the “aircraft” was originally spotted Thursday night, Dames said responders saw a “piece of the aircraft” which disappeared from sight as they got closer.
As to why divers were not sent into the water until Friday morning, Dames said there are numerous variables that can impact when and how authorities proceed in those scenarios.
That afternoon, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis encouraged the Ferguson family to continue to hold out hope for the best outcome.
(The RBDF revealed during the November 16 press conference that divers discovered debris from the downed aircraft in the area of the crash site at a depth of 112 feet. This was not previously reported.)
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 15
After less than two hours of searching, volunteers and civilian divers working with the HeadKnowles online support group found parts of a wrecked plane they believed were from the November 8 crash.
(RBDF officials said its divers discovered additional debris in the area of the crash site, though it did not report this until Friday. According to officials, there were plans to dive the same area where volunteers found debris.)
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Attorney General Carl Bethel slammed the RBDF over its handling of the search and rescue effort. He said it was mind-boggling if the teams found the aircraft’s wreckage during the original search, and left the site. Bethel pledged that he would look into the matter to seek to determine whether any procedural errors or otherwise were made.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 16
11 a.m. — Senior officers of the RBDF and RBPF defended its handling of the search and rescue efforts and ultimate recovery. RBDF Commodore Tellis Bethel admitted that the organization ought to have done a better job of communicating the details of its investigation into the plane crash.
However, the Commodore and other RBDF senior officers insisted that every effort was made to “push the envelope” in all aspects of the search.
He also admitted that no effort was made to secure the part of the aircraft originally sighted because at the time, the rescue team’s priority was to “look for persons who might have been alive in the water”.
It was also learned that divers found the first traces of debris from the plane — long, papery material — on Friday, approximately 500 feet east from where the tail was spotted on the night of the crash.
According to the Commodore, the Defence Force had searched over 300 nautical miles of ocean.
Dives ranged between 80 feet and 216 feet, according to Bethel.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 17
Search and recovery efforts continued, according to authorities.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 18
3:30 p.m. — The Royal Bahamas Defence Force’s dive team conducted three dives on Sunday near the crash site and found additional “minor pieces” of the aircraft, according to RBDF Commander Shone Pinder. The Defence Force’s search was expanded as far as Andros and the Berry Islands.
Pinder said the Defence Force will continue their search until there is nothing left to find. When asked whether there was still hope of finding the pilot or his remains, RBDF Lt. Commander Derrick Ferguson, the dive operations manager, said, “Well, of course, from the Defence Force side as well as the police side we will always try to do our best to try to recover.
He trailed off before continuing.
“…We know that these activities and these resolutions provide some degree of closure to family members, so from our standpoint we will exhaust all avenues to ensure that we do all that we [can] to leave no stone unturned, in terms of trying to bring closure to the family, as well as trying to see how best we could recover the plane as well as the remains.” The RBDF also said it planned to conduct deeper dives in the area of the crash site.
6:19 p.m. — The prime minister pledged a full review by “competent experts” into the protocols, procedures and agencies involved in air accident response and investigations in The Bahamas.
The prime minister said he will not comment on the operations until he has received a full report from the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation, the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and other relevant authorities
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 19
Speaking to Eyewitness News, Commander Pinder said divers found more minor pieces of debris yesterday, but “no significant find occurred at the dive location”. He also advised that between 18 and 20 divers, comprised of the RBDF and volunteers, conducted searches.
(Times included in this article are approximates based on first-hand accounts and times provided by authorities)