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15-year-old plane crash survivor receives Coast Guard recognition

  • Author: Lisa Phu
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published July 31, 2015

JUNEAU -- The 15-year-old survivor of a plane crash near Juneau was recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard on Thursday for helping save the other three passengers despite his own injuries.

Jose Vasquez was on the Wings of Alaska Cessna that crashed into a mountain 18 miles west of Juneau, killing the pilot. Vasquez lives in Puerto Rico and was in Juneau visiting his godparents. All three and another passenger were traveling to Hoonah from Juneau.

Coast Guard spokesman Grant DeVuyst said Vasquez used survival skills he learned as a Boy Scout.

"He had multiple injuries but he still went through many steps to make sure the other passengers got the help they needed," DeVuyst said.

Vasquez had broken ribs and a collapsed lung, according to his godfather.

Vasquez put layers of clothing around his godmother, Sandra Herrera Lopez, to preserve body heat. He lifted cargo boxes that had fallen on another passenger, Ernestine Hanlon-Abel of Hoonah.

DeVust said Vasquez then found three cellphones and called 911. He used a phone app to determine the latitude and longitude of the crash site and passed them on to emergency operators.

"When he heard one of the first helicopters from Temsco nearby, he started using smoke signals, and then later, when the Coast Guard helicopter arrived on scene, he started waving a silver thermal blanket to attract attention and that successfully vectored them in for what was the rescue of the passengers," DeVuyst said.

He said Vasquez's efforts accelerated the search and rescue.

"There was the emergency beacon aboard the aircraft, but without his precise location, because of how heavily wooded everything was, it would've taken longer for rescue crews to locate them," DeVuyst said.

The Coast Guard honored Vasquez during a ceremony closed to media at Juneau's Federal Building. DeVuyst said about 50 people were there, including family and friends and Coast Guard personnel. His godfather, Humberto Hernandez, another passenger on the flight, is a Coast Guard doctor.

Hernandez said he's getting physical therapy. He has a swollen leg and back pain and will have to have some teeth removed. Herrera Lopez, his wife, was medevacked to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He said she had several fractures to her head, arm, ankle, collarbone and ribs. She's since been transferred to another hospital in Seattle.

Hanlon-Abel is still at Harborview. Her husband, Tom Abel, said she's undergone multiple operations and has both legs in casts. He hopes she'll be able to leave the hospital soon but will likely stay in an assisted-living facility before returning to Hoonah.

Vasquez is awaiting clearance from his doctor before going home to Puerto Rico.

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