Merchant Marine trainees were first to arrive after plane went down

The Crash Of Flight 990

November 02, 1999|By NEWSDAY

At 2: 30 a.m. Sunday, the voice emanating by radio from the U.S. Coast Guard station at Woods Hole on Cape Cod said an EgyptAir Boeing 767 jet had gone down 60 nautical miles off Nantucket. On the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy training vessel, crew members realized it was clearly within range of their 224-foot ship.

"It was surreal," said Gilbert Cadena of Nederland, Texas, a senior at the academy. "We didn't expect this to turn into anything."

The transmission set the 26-member crew into action, plunging the team of mariners in training into a real-life odyssey of international scope and monumental human tragedy.

The ship got its first sign of the wreckage at 5: 55 a.m., when the strong smell of fuel filled the bridge and spread across the decks. Soon afterward, shopping bags and other traces of a catastrophe began to rise to the ocean surface.

Minutes later, the 17 midshipmen and nine officers were literally fishing out portions of machinery, luggage, Teddy Bears, clothing and human remains that bubbled up and surrounded the lonely vessel, the first to arrive on the scene.

"Their performance was magnificent," said Capt. Robert Allee, commander of the ship. "The American people are paying a lot of money to educate these students. It's in times like these that it pays off."

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