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FBI Interviews Cuba Crash Survivor

September 20, 2000

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) _ The FBI interviewed one survivor of a Cuban plane that crashed in the Gulf of Mexico and the Coast Guard will attempt to transfer the eight others to a guard cutter, authorities said Wednesday.

Authorities were attempting to figure out whether Tuesday’s crash, which killed one of the 10 Cubans aboard, came at the end of a hijacking or whether the 10 had left Cuba voluntarily aboard a stolen plane.

Petty Officer Danielle DeMarino said the seas were too rough to transfer the survivors to the Coast Guard cutter Courageous on Wednesday morning, so the transfer would be attempted Wednesday evening. There is an FBI agent onboard the cutter to investigate, she said.

``Due to heavy weather right now, we’re trying to find calmer seas,″ DeMarino said.

Seas in the area were at 4 to 8 feet because of tropical weather disturbances in the Gulf of Mexico.

Wednesday morning, all but one of the survivors remained aboard the Panamanian freighter Chios Dream, whose captain rescued them Tuesday. The most seriously injured, Rodolfo Fuentes, 36, was flown to a Key West hospital Tuesday night.

FBI agent Al Alonso said Wednesday that the agency was talking with Fuentes. He would not give details.

Doctors said Wednesday his prognosis is good.

``He has a concussion, a big cut on the back of his head and a sore neck,″ said Dr. David Bannon. ``He’s really doing quite well considering the drama he suffered.″

U.S. law lets Cubans apply for residency if they reach U.S. soil. Ordinarily, those who are captured at sea are returned to Cuba, but authorities said it was too early to say what would be done with the survivors.

The Cuban government said that the pilot reported to the control tower that he was being hijacked and that the plane, a government plane used in agriculture, was headed to Florida with a group of adults and children.

The Cuban government’s statement, published Wednesday in the Communist Party daily Granma, said that pilot Lenin Iglesias Hernandez first took off in the plane at 7:35 a.m. Tuesday from a small airstrip in western Pinar del Rio province with flight technician Juan Jose Galeano Cabrera for what initially appeared to be a routine crop-dusting flight.

But Iglesias then flew to nearby Herradura airport in the capital of Pinar del Rio, where he asked Galeano Cabrera to get out and wait for him because he had to deal with ``an administrative matter.″

There, Iglesias picked up a group of people waiting for him at the extreme end of one of the runways and took off at 8:35 a.m., the statement added.

``They came voluntarily,″ said Aina Cepero, a family member of two brothers she said had been aboard the plane. She said the brothers’ father lives in Miami.

The Coast Guard cutter arrived at the freighter Tuesday night. An FBI agent was sent to the cutter after hijacking allegations surfaced. Among the questions the agents hoped to answer was whether the plane ran out of gas.

Konstantinos Kalaitgis, captain of the Panamanian freighter, said the plane circled his ship several times and dropped a box into the sea. The plane crashed nearby and the survivors _ three men, three women and three children _ scrambled out.

A doctor from the nearby Carnival Cruise ship Tropicale initially treated the survivors. In addition to the injured suffered by Fuentes, a women had a broken collarbone and another had a severe leg cut. The others had no serious injuries, Carnival spokesman Andy Newman said.

The plane crashed about 50 miles west of Cuba or about 150 miles east of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. It was 285 miles from Key West. The Coast Guard said the craft was heading west _ away from both Florida and Cuba _ when it went down.

Mercedes Martinez _ believed to be the pilot’s wife _ ``never talked about doing this, not even in jest,″ said her brother, Jorge Martinez, in Pinar del Rio. Relatives said the pilot, Iglesias, iss 35, and identified their sons as Erik, 13, and Danny, 7.

Air traffic control in Havana notified the air traffic control center in Miami at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday that the aircraft reported a possible hijacking, said Kathleen Bergen, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman in Atlanta.

Contact was lost 15 minutes later. The FAA had no voice or radar contact with the aircraft, Bergen said. The Pentagon also said it had no radar contact with the plane.

U.S. treatment of would-be exiles has been in the spotlight since the tug-of-war over Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy rescued at sea in November. His mother died during the attempt to reach America, and the boy was eventually returned to his Cuban father despite protests by Cuban-Americans who wanted him to stay.

Armando Gutierrez, who once served as the family spokesman for the Miami family who wanted to keep Elian, and attorney Manny Diaz traveled from Miami to a Key West hospital to visit Fuentes.

``We’re here to show support and help another Cuban and his family,″ Gutierrez said Wednesday.

President Clinton said the health and safety of the survivors should be America’s first concern.

``I can imagine that there will be a lot of questions about what should be done about the people that are found alive,″ Clinton said. ``I think the most important thing now is just to worry about their care.″

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On the Net:

FAA: http://www.faa.gov

Coast Guard: http://www.uscg.mil