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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Three victims in Big Isle air crash called 'heroes'

 •  Shiraki 'a good guy' who downplayed dangers of job

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — Search crews yesterday found the burned wreckage of a Hawai'i Air Ambulance north of Hilo and recovered the bodies of the pilot and two paramedics who died when the aircraft crashed in dense forest Saturday.

Mandy Shiraki

Joseph Daniel Villiaros
About 20 relatives of the three crash victims gathered at a Hawai'i County Fire Department command post at the Mauna Kea Ranch Community Center about three miles from the wreckage to await news of pilot Ron Laubacher, 38, and paramedics Joseph Daniel Villiaros, 39, and Mandy Shiraki.

Shiraki was an Emergency Medical Services district supervisor in Honolulu, and Villiaros was a Honolulu firefighter.

Both worked part-time for the air ambulance company, and were traveling from Honolulu to Hilo Medical Center to evacuate a 9-year-old patient when the Cessna 414A Chancellor crashed in stormy weather.

The wreckage was spotted at 9:48 a.m. yesterday at the 3,600-foot elevation in a thick growth of eucalyptus and ironwood trees in the 'Umikoa area about 25 miles north of Hilo. The crash site was compact, with most of the plane smashed into pieces no bigger than a few feet long, according to Fire Capt. Felix Asia. The largest intact remnant was a section of the tail.

"It looks like it was coming from the mountain heading out toward the ocean, and somehow he went down too low and hit some trees, and the thing just turned and dropped right there," Asia said.

About 14 firefighters worked at the site yesterday to recover the bodies, which were removed around 3 p.m. and taken to Hilo Medical Center. Firefighters were shuttled in by helicopter and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board is scheduled to arrive in Hawai'i today to launch an investigation, with assistance from two investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration who are expected in Hilo this morning.

Emergency Medical Services supervisor Mandy Shiraki's wife, Melinda, and son Matthew waited for news near Hilo.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser*Kevin Dayton • The Honolulu Advertiser

The last confirmed radar contact was at 1:29 a.m. Saturday, when the Cessna passed near the Waimea-Kohala Airport outside Waimea. Authorities said the plane had veered off the normal path for air ambulances on the journey to Hilo. Those flights usually follow the coast at about 9,500 feet, but the Cessna headed farther inland and was flying at about 5,900 feet.

One possibility is that the pilot, who radioed to ask about any thunderstorm activity in the Hilo area, deviated from his course to reach higher elevations toward Mauna Kea after hitting bad weather.

Several trees at the crash site showed signs of being hit by the plane, but the tail remnant is the only bit of wreckage visible from above, Asia said.

"It's so difficult to see from the top that it's amazing the Coast Guard found that wreckage," he said.

Coast Guard Lt. Kevin Quilliam estimated that searchers had only a few hours, if not minutes, left to find the downed aircraft because its emergency beacon was about to die out.

Quilliam was one of four Coast Guard members on board an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter involved in yesterday's search. The crew located the beacon at the same time a Civil Air Patrol aircraft that was assisting in the search heard the sound as well.

"If not for the beacon we probably wouldn't have found it," he said.

The Cessna was reported missing at about 3 a.m. Saturday, and Quilliam said the electronic locating transmitter signal was not detected until 55 hours later. He said the lifetime of the transmitter's battery is about 48 hours.

He said signals typically are strong enough to be picked up by satellites. But the Cessna's beacon, which activated on impact, may have been damaged, because its signal could be detected only within a half-mile area.

Even after the signal was picked up, the Coast Guard still had difficulty finding the plane. Quilliam said the area where the plane went down had three layers of tree and brush cover.

"We didn't see anything that even looked like a plane," Quilliam said. "We saw a couple of pieces that looked about the size of this piece of paper, a couple of white pieces ... But it was so thick that the branches and leaves just kind of closed back over the wreck site."

Bad weather had prevented a search of the area Sunday.

Once the wreckage was spotted, a two-man crew from the county fire department flew by helicopter to an area near the debris field and hiked a half-mile through the forest to confirm it was the missing plane, said Fire Capt. Robert Bailey.

As the recovery effort was under way, Mitchel Rosenfeld, medical director for Hawai'i Air Ambulance, spoke with reporters at the company's Lagoon Drive headquarters, referring to the victims as "heroes." He said the company felt a tremendous sense of loss.

It was the first crash in the company's 25 years.

Laubacher was one of 15 pilots employed by Hawai'i Air Ambulance. He had been flying for five years and had more than 8,000 hours of flight time, company officials said.

"He will be sorely missed," said chief pilot Rob Sweet.

The Honolulu Fire Department also was mourning the death of one of its own yesterday. Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi said the loss of Villiaros, a five-year HFD veteran, was not only a tragic loss to the department but also to the community.

"These three individuals who have spent most of their adult lives saving lives had to make the ultimate sacrifice," Leonardi said.

Next door at Emergency Medical Services headquarters, Chief Robin McCulloch said their thoughts were with Shiraki's family, especially his wife, Melinda, who is also a paramedic.

"Mandy was very much an action-oriented person. He was always in the thick of things," McCulloch said. "If Mandy would choose the way to spend his last days on earth, this would have been it."

In addition to his duties as an EMS district chief, Shiraki was an adjunct faculty member at Kapi'olani Community College.

Staff writers Peter Boylan, Curtis Lum and Karen Blakeman contributed to this report. Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.