CLEVELAND, Ohio -- As the search for a plane that vanished after takeoff from Burke Lakefront Airport entered a sixth day Wednesday, officials from the City of Cleveland and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spoke for the first time about how the federal agency might assist.
The conversation happened after Fox 8 News questioned why several Army Corps resources on Lake Erie were not involved in the search and rescue mission immediately after the crash or subsequent recovery mission. The Army Corps of Engineers is familiar with the contours of Lake Erie and has technology to detect objects on the lake bottom.
The plane vanished from radar just before 11 p.m. Thursday, and air traffic control notified the U.S. Coast Guard around 11:30 p.m., according to U.S. Coast Guard Captain Michael Mullen. Mullen said the Coast Guard called in a helicopter from Detroit to search for survivors and brought in the cutter Bristol Bay later Friday morning to assist, along with an airplane from Canada.
In those critical hours, a 110 foot U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seagoing tug boat sat idly next to the Coast Guard station in Cleveland. The boat is equipped with thermal imaging technology that reveals heat and could have potentially located the wreckage or debris near the surface.
Philip Spitzinger, Chief of Emergency Management in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Buffalo District, said Wednesday that USACE had had “no interaction” with the Coast Guard.
At a press conference Friday, Mullen said the Coast Guard wasn’t able to see anything underneath the water and were using the eyesight of the pilots in the search.
The City of Cleveland took over recovery efforts Friday evening, with assistance from agencies from across the state, as well as the New York State Police, including dive teams and boats equipped with sonar, according to city officials. The City also hired the private firm Underwater Marine Contractors to aid in the search and extraction of the plane for an undisclosed cost, a city spokesperson said.
While the Army Corps of Engineers is fully equipped with survey teams and three boats that have technology to provide 3D imaging of the lake bottom, Spitzinger said no one from the City of Cleveland made a formal request for assistance. That would ultimately have to come through the State of Ohio to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Orders would then be given to respond.
“There've been some instances with newer equipment, the resolution is such we can see cars that have sunk, boats that have sunk,” said Roman Figler, Chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Survey Section in Buffalo. Figler said the equipment could potentially detect a plane wreckage in the type of waters being searched.
In a press release sent late Wednesday, the City of Cleveland said it made a call to USACE Friday evening and first heard from the USACE Tuesday. A spokesperson for the Army Corps said no one recalled actually receiving the call. The USACE has an emergency line for after-hours and weekend incidents.
A representative from USACE offered help Tuesday, with Burke Lakefront Airport Commissioner Khalid Bahhur responding after Fox 8’s inquiries Wednesday, according to copies of the emails obtained by Fox 8. USACE offered to assist in a limited role, including through use of the tug boat, and said further assistance would require a formal request through FEMA.
A city spokesperson did not yet say if the city would accept the offer or pursue further assistance through FEMA.
Some on city council questioned why available resources were not being used.
“If the Army Corps of Engineers has better technology and has better resources or even has additional resources to help us, we should be asking,” said Ward 2 Councilman Zack Reed. “This is a no-brainer.”