Boeing 737 from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base skids off runway into Florida river infested with alligators

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Officials say a charter plane traveling from Cuba to north Florida ended up in a river at the end of a runway.

Key points:

  • Officials said everyone on board survived the crash, with 21 people taken to hospital
  • It is not yet known what caused the plane to slide off the runway
  • The plane was headed from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

A Boeing 737 arriving from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba crashed into the St Johns River during a thunderstorm on Friday night.

The naval base, also known as Gitmo, is a US naval base that incorporates Guantanamo Bay detention camp, known for holding suspected terrorists. 

There were 136 passengers and seven crew on board the plan, which was headed for the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Passengers were a mix of civilian and military personnel, officials said.

Water landing ‘a miracle’

“Every person is alive and accounted for,” the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter.

“The plane was not submerged.”

Captain Michael Connor, the commanding officer of Jacksonville’s Naval Air Station, said that while the crash certainly wasn’t ideal, he acknowledge it could have been much worse.

“I think it is a miracle,” he said.

“We could be talking about a different story this evening.

“I think there’s a lot to say about the professionalism of the folks that helped the passengers off the aeroplane.

“It very well could [have been] worse.”

At the time of the press conference, it was not known how long it would take to remove the plane from the river.

Captain Connor said the landing gear appeared to be resting on the river bed, making it unlikely for the aircraft to float away.

He said crews began working to contain any jet fuel leaks almost immediately after securing the passengers’ safety.

A man wearing a military uniform talks to news reporters.

The mayor of Jacksonville, Lenny Curry, said President Donald Trump had called him to offer help.

“No fatalities reported,” he said.

“We are all in this together. Absorb that.”

River notorious for alligator population

Some locals took to social media to voice concerns about alligators which may have been lurking in the shallows.

An alligator weighing more than 300 kilograms was caught in St Johns River in 2016, Click Orlando reported, with the reptile measuring nearly four metres.]

That same year, News4 Jax reported a boom in the alligator population in the area.

Wildlife experts counted at least 108 in a portion of St Johns River near the Jacksonville Naval Complex, but estimated there could be more than 700 alligators in the area.

Plane ‘bounced’ during landing

A passenger on board the plane, attorney Cheryl Bormann, told CNN in an interview that the flight, which had been four hours late in departing, made a “really hard landing” in Jacksonville amid thunder and lightning.

“We came down, the plane literally hit the ground and bounced, it was clear the pilot did not have total control of the plane, it bounced again,” she said, adding that the experience was “terrifying”.

A plane sitting in shallow water. The plane has no lights on and the sky is dark.

Ms Bormann said she hit her head on a plastic tray on the seat in front of her as the plane veered sideways and off the runway. 

“We were in the water, we couldn’t tell where we were, whether it was a river or an ocean,” she said.

Ms Bormann described emerging from the plane onto the wing as oxygen masks deployed and smelling the jet fuel that she said was leaking into the water.

She said that most of the passengers were connected to the military and helped each other out of their seats and onto a wing, where they were assisted after some time into a raft.

Boeing gathering information about crash 

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said 21 people were transported to local hospitals, with all listed as being in good condition with no critical injuries.

The mayor of Jacksonville said on Twitter that crews were working to contain jet fuel on the water.

A photo posted by deputies showed a Miami Air International logo on the plane. The company didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Officials didn’t immediately say what caused the plane to leave the runway.

In a Tweet, Boeing said it was gathering information about the crash.

“An investigation into the mishap is underway,” a US Naval Air Station Jacksonville spokesperson said on Facebook