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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Four bodies recovered in Maui air tragedy

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

Maui homebuilder Steve Betsill took up flying a year and a half ago with a buddy who described him yesterday as a great pilot who wasn't the type to take risks.

Pilot Steve Betsill was killed in Saturday's plane crash on Maui.
Wailuku architect Lon Whelchel said that fact makes it so surprising that Betsill, 47, was the pilot killed in Saturday's East Maui plane crash of a Cessna Cardinal 177 that also claimed the lives of three of Betsill's relatives.

"My first thought was someone stole the airplane, because Steve wouldn't go down," said Whelchel, who co-owned the plane with Betsill. "This is so uncharacteristic — he was too cautious."

Following an unsuccessful air search the day before, a helicopter hired by the Betsill family spotted the wreckage at about 7:50 a.m. in Nahiku, about 200 yards mauka of the Hana Highway.

Two of Betsill's brothers, Dwayne and Randy Betsill, were in that helicopter and were dropped off on the highway. Brushing aside warnings that they might not like what they saw, they climbed into the thick jungle and over creek beds to the crash site, marked by the hovering helicopter.

What they saw was the plane's nose smashed into the ground at a 70 degree angle, with the four bodies inside. Dwayne Betsill said it appeared the craft flew into a eucalyptus forest and fell 150 feet hard to the ground.

"It was a strong impact. They didn't suffer much," he said.

The passengers were relatives from Fort Worth, Texas — cousin Jerry Betsill, an attorney; his 11-year-old daughter, Emma; and Jerry Betsill's 10-year-old niece, Meredith Fenimore, of Dallas.

Recent fatal aircraft accidents

• July 14, 2002: Four are killed in crash of Cessna single-engine plane near Hana.

• Oct. 21, 2001: Pilot is killed when his homemade single-seat plane crashes on North Shore of O'ahu.

• June 15, 2001: Single-engine plane crashes on Lana'i, killing a student pilot. The flight instructor on board was injured.

• Aug. 25, 2000: One person is killed when Big Island Air Piper PA 31-350 Navajo Chieftain crashes into Hilo Bay. Eight people survive.

• Sept. 25, 1999: Big Island Air Tour Piper Chieftain crashes on slopes of Mauna Loa, killing pilot and all nine passengers aboard.

• July 4, 1999: California man killed after crashing on take-off at Hilo airport en route to Oakland, Calif., in Beechcraft Baron twin-engine.

• May 23, 1999: Pilot lost and presumed dead after his twin-engine Beechcraft B-90 crashes offshore from Mokule'ia on O'ahu.

• Feb. 28, 1999: Pilot missing after Cessna aircraft ditches in ocean 345 miles northeast of Maui.

• May 10, 1997: Two men fatally injured, two others survive crash of Hughes 369-D helicopter near Hapuna State Park, the Big Island.

Dwayne Betsill said family members struggled with the loss but eventually were able to deal with it.

"It's because of our faith in God," he said. "We understand he's in a better place."

The plane left Kahului Airport about 2 p.m. Saturday on a scenic tour that was to include Lahaina, Moloka'i and East Maui before returning to Kahului, he said. Two hours after takeoff, radar picked up the Cessna above Ke'anae Point at 1,600 feet, a normal flying altitude for the area along the coastal route to Hana.

Then the plane dropped out of sight. Betsill's wife, Trudee, called the Federal Aviation Administration at 7:45 p.m. Saturday and reported the group missing.

Dwayne Betsill said his brother was probably showing off the family property in Nahiku. The crash site was a half-mile away, he said.

Steve Betsill was described yesterday as a family man and devoted father, a person dedicated to church, community and his family business.

He was vice president of sales and marketing for Kihei-based Betsill Brothers Construction, a firm run by himself and his three brothers. He had sold two businesses in California to join his brothers on Maui in 1994.

Among other activities on Maui, he was involved in both the South Maui and Central Maui Little Leagues as a parent and coach.

The Rev. James Marocco of First Assembly of God in Kahului described Steve Betsill was an active church member who volunteered in the music and children's ministry and joined church missions to the Philippines and Africa.

"He had a real servant's heart. It didn't matter what it was — he just served," he said.

Mark Miller, a friend and colleague in the construction business, said Steve Betsill was a man of integrity who always kept his word.

"He always worked hard to make sure the customer was satisfied. A lot of times it cost the company money," said Miller, owner of Tru-lite Electric and Valley Isle Lighting.

Tweet Coleman, Pacific representative for the FAA, said an FAA aviation safety inspector would do a preliminary investigation. A representative from the National Transportation Safety Board would arrive on Maui, probably today, to take over, she said.

Although the plane was made in 1968, Coleman said that was not considered old by aviation standards.

Despite reports that the plane needed engine work, Whelchel insisted that was not the case.

"It was a sound plane, very powerful and solid. It ran like a sewing machine."

Whelchel, who designs homes for Betsill, described the man as his best friend.

"He's one of the best people I know; a man's man," he said. "He's what I would pattern my life after."

He is survived by wife Trudee; sons Jeremy, 17, and Alex, 14; and daughters Abby, 9, and Jillian, 7.

Jerry and Emma Betsill are survived by wife and mother Laura, and son and brother Sam, 6.

Meredith Fenimore is survived by parents Jennifer and Travis Fenimore of Dallas, brother William, 6, and sister, Olivia, 18 months.

Reach Timothy Hurley at 808-244-4880, or e-mail at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.