Adventist missionary pilot Robert Norton with his wife Neiba lead out the Adventist Medical Aviation based in Gran Sabana, Venezuela. Their plane went missing in southeastern Venezuela Monday, February 16. [photo courtesy AMA]
National aviation authority ceases search after 72 hours; church hiring rescue service.
I met Ismael and heard his story personally. This happened in Nov.1999
CARACAS, Venezuela --- The airplane was over the Amazon jungle when it began losing altitude. The bush pilot ordered his seven passengers to throw their belongings out the window.
In the last row, 11-year-old Noris Villarreal tossed out everything she had, except a knapsack with some bread, canned deviled ham and a Bible. She was returning home after summer vacation to start sixth grade in the jungle village of San Juan de Manapiare.
The Cessna 207 was dropping dangerously close to the forest and was still 10 minutes away from the village's landing strip when the pilot decided to try for an emergency landing in a river. He missed, smashing into trees along the riverbank.
When Noris regained consciousness, four of those on the plane were dead. A woman died later.
It was the start of a two-week odyssey in the jungle for Noris and another passenger, surviving on plants, praying for strength and searching for help that eventually --- miraculously --- came.
"If it wasn't for God, I wouldn't be alive," Noris said at the Miguel Perez Carreno public hospital in Caracas.
Her Aguaysa airlines flight had taken off Oct. 12 from Puerto Ayacucho, the capital of Amazonas state in southeastern Venezuela. Her home in San Juan de Manapiare, a village of 3,000 people, was 45 minutes away by air --- or a week by canoe.
The plane had mechanical problems in mid-flight, so the pilot returned to the airport and switched aircraft. That plane had trouble, too.
Near the wreckage lay another man, Carlos Arteaga, his lower right leg mangled. Noris fed him some bread and water, and she tried to apply bandages she found.
The only other passenger not gravely injured, a 19-year-old Yekuana Indian named Ismael Rodriguez, set off on his own to look for help and for his suitcase, which held his prized high school diploma. He had been in Puerto Ayacucho applying to become a teacher.
That first night Noris stayed at the crash site.
"The dead people didn't make me afraid, because God was with me. I felt him close," Noris said.
Ismael returned, and he and Noris decided to look for help.
"We started to walk and walk until we got lost," Ismael said from his bed at the Perez Carreno hospital, his feet swollen and purplish, his right cheek marred by a gash.
For days Noris and Ismael ate plants and drank water from streams. They heard the buzz of search planes but could do nothing.
Rescue officials were flying over the missing plane's flight path each day, to no avail. Six days into the search, relatives and neighbors of the missing passengers persuaded authorities to let them search on foot.
Nineteen villagers set off, armed with two shotguns to fend off possible attacks by jungle cats and other animals. Three days later, they came upon the wrecked plane and Arteaga, who was barely alive. It was 10 days after the crash.
Arteaga pleaded with the Indians to let him die in peace, but they carried him to the other side of the river. Rescue officials arrived the next day and rushed Arteaga to Caracas. The Indians returned home to recruit 50 more villagers to continue the hunt.
On Oct. 25, 13 days after the crash, Noris and Ismael wound up back at the river where the plane went down, just a mile from the crash site. They waded out to a large rock, hoping to be spotted. Four hours later a helicopter appeared overhead. They waved and screamed.
Rescuers flew the pair to Caracas some 360 miles away. Television stations flashed images of them being lowered from a military airplane and being wheeled into the hospital.
Four passengers and the pilot were dead. But doctors said all three survivors were progressing well, and Noris and Ismael probably would be released soon.