HONOLULU (AP) — A small plane crashed and burst into flames shortly after takeoff from Hawaii's Lanai island, killing three people and leaving three others injured, authorities said Thursday.
The crash occurred around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday about a mile from Lanai Airport, Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said. The plane, a twin-engine Piper PA31, burned upon impact, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor.
Maui County identified the dead as the pilot of the plane and two Department of Planning employees. Two other planning employees were in critical condition and the deputy attorney for Corporation Counsel, the agency that provides legal services for the county, was in serious condition Thursday morning, according to a nursing supervisor at Queen's Medical Center and the county. All three survivors were airlifted to a Honolulu hospital.
Lanai is part of Maui County, and it's common for county officials to travel frequently between the islands via plane or ferry. The group had been on Lanai earlier Wednesday evening for a Lanai Planning Commission meeting and had chartered a return flight on Maui Air, the county said.
"The man who called 911, the deputy attorney for Corporation Counsel, said he had pulled two of his co-workers away from the fire as best he could because they could not move on their own," the county said in a statement. "All three survivors suffered burn injuries."
At a news conference on Thursday, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa choked back tears, describing how county employees are like family. "We're a very small community," he said. "Everybody knows each other. Everybody works with each other. Any kind of a loss like this really hits home."
State Sen. J. Kalani English, who represents Lanai, said the crash and a December ocean crash-landing off Molokai highlights how often government officials need to fly. Hawaii Health Director Loretta Fuddy died in the Dec. 11 flight that took off from Molokai's Kalaupapa peninsula.
"These flights are very familiar to me," said English, who flies frequently between Oahu, Maui, Molokai and Lanai. Inter-island travel is especially common for officials in Maui County, which includes Molokai and Lanai.
"It's one of the hazards of our topography, being a multi-island county and district," he said. "Hawaii has very, very safe airports and very, very safe flight routes. For us, I mean government officials, because we have to fly so much to these areas, the probability goes up."
Fire Services Chief Lee Mainaga said the aircraft down call came at 9:25 p.m. Fire crews located the fully engulfed aircraft about a mile south of the airport, in former pineapple land with grass about two-feet high, he said.
Police spokesman Lt. William Juan said names of the victims wouldn't be immediately released. The two Planning Department employees who died were women. Arakawa said one worked for the county for decades and he described the other as a "bright, young planner."
Arakawa credited the deputy attorney for preventing more deaths. The three surviving men suffered second- and third-degrees burns to their faces and hands, he said. Billionaire Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle Corp., bought 98 percent of Lanai in 2012. He later told financial news channel CNBC he envisions Lanai becoming a "little laboratory" for experimenting with more environmentally sound ways to live.
There are some 3,200 residents of the rural island that has one school, one hospital and no traffic lights. Lanai resident Robin Kaye, who attended Wednesday's meeting, said officials and residents discussed utilities and infrastructure plans.
"It was a full house," he said. "There were a lot of people from the community there." Maui Deputy Planning Director Michele McLean said the team had been traveling to Lanai on a regular basis for many months, sometimes by ferry, sometimes by plane.
"We're devastated," she said. "There really isn't anything more to say other than that." The National Transportation Safety Board will lead the investigation into the cause, with assistance from the FAA, Gregor said.
Officials for Maui Air couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
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