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‘It’s a miracle anyone came out alive’

The three friends — Le’Annka Rigby, Nia Bethel-Sears and Allicia Rolle — had been long overdue for hanging out.

So, they booked a girls trip to Long Island during regatta time.

After Bahamasair canceled their flight, they were able to get on a charter.

Rolle, 28, said she was initially apprehensive about flying on a small plane, but once they were up in the air on the Piper Navajo with pilot Brad McPhee heading to Long Island from Nassau last Thursday, it was smooth sailing.

“On my way, my fear subsided because it was great,” Rolle said. “I felt very comfortable with pilot McPhee.”

Once in Long Island, where Rigby has family, the friends did not do much at night, but they had a blast during the three days they were there, according to Rolle.

They toured the island. They ate sheep tongue souse. They visited Columbus Monument. They had a stop at Dean’s Blue Hole, and checked out the festivities at the regatta site.

But their fun-packed weekend took a tragic turn early Sunday after McPhee took off from Deadman’s Cay Airport around 9 a.m. with the three friends and three other women onboard — Patsy Higgs, Rhiannon Thomas and Aleitheia Newbold, a 22-year-old mother of a six-month-old.

Newbold was the only person killed when the plane crashed in bushes about two miles from the airport.

It has taken days for some survivors to even speak publicly about the incident.

Not long after take-off, recalled Rolle, who had been sitting on the left side of the plane, an alarm went off and there was a flashing on the side of the aircraft.

“I realized that something was wrong, but I thought that maybe it was something like maybe the wing, something that wouldn’t have been a huge deal,” Rolle said.

“I was trying to remain as positive as possible. I didn’t want to panic.

“At some point, the plane made some movements where I realized that all was not well. We did a nosedive after that and that’s when I first started to realize the plane might be in danger of going down, but I still wasn’t afraid. I was just processing everything, like in a very calm state.”

She continued, “The pilot pulled the plane up. We were horizontal again and then the plane started to go down from the tail and that’s when I really realized that this plane is going to go down and I accepted that.”

Rolle said her friend, Bethel-Sears, grabbed her hand “and the look in her eyes was confirmation”.

“I remember I closed my eyes because after the plane went down on the tail end, it started to lean severely on my side,” Rolle said.

“I was sitting right behind the pilot and Nia was sitting right in front and then there was the door, and that’s the moment I realized we were going to [crash]. I just closed my eyes and I was holding Nia’s hand.

“I had Nia’s hand in my right hand and my phone in my left and I just closed my eyes and, honestly, all I remember was I felt that we had hit the ground, but that was all I felt. I didn’t hear anything.”

Asked what went through her mind as she held hands with her friend, Rolle said, “I was holding her hand trying to transfer onto her that I felt we were going to be OK. Not for one second did I think I was going to die. I just kind of surrendered to the moment and said ‘OK’, and it happened like two to three seconds after.”

Rolle added, “Rhiannon, she was unconscious upon impact and, unfortunately, Aleitheia Newbold was ejected from the plane upon impact, and I realized that as I was getting out of the plane because she had been sitting opposite the door.”

They crawled out the plane as quickly as they could, fearing it would explode. Rolle said she remembers smelling fuel.

After they got out, Rolle said, they were still afraid the plane may blow up.

She, Bethel-Sears and Higgs scrambled into nearby bushes.

Rigby ran back to help the pilot who was administering CPR to Newbold after he called on her to assist.

“The only time I was afraid was when I thought that the plane might have blown and I wasn’t sure how far we could get away because there was no space,” Rolle said.

“The bush was dense. I just thought it was a race against time at that point and I was not afraid in that plane at all.”

Rolle said she and the pilot were the only two who still had working cell phones after the crash.

She said she immediately called 911 to get help, as did the pilot.

In the bushes, she said, she realized that Bethel-Sears and Higgs had significant injuries as they were having difficulties moving and breathing.

Rolle said that since her injuries were minor, she tried hard to keep them calm and assured that help was on the way.

She also called her parents and Bethel-Sears’ parents.

Meanwhile, she could hear McPhee and Rigby encouraging Newbold to hang on.

“All I heard them staying is ‘You got to stay with us. You got to stay with us,’” she said, adding that she did not immediately realize that Newbold had not survived the crash.

“My first time seeing her was that day. It was just surreal. It could have been any of us. It was just a matter of seat placement and the series of events, but I felt terrible because I know Patsy in the bushes kept saying that she had a baby. I couldn’t imagine.”

Rolle said it was at least an hour before the first responders arrived, and given where the plane had crashed — an area that was extremely difficult to access — she was surprised they arrived as quickly as they did.

“They had to come with cutlasses,” she added.

“They were breaking the branches with their hands. Someone had to come break branches to even help us get back to where the plane was because, at that point, they (Bethel-Sears and Higgs) couldn’t do a lot of bending under branches and they really couldn’t afford to be misstepping or falling because, at that point, we still didn’t know what was wrong and they were in great pain.”

Rolle is grateful to the rescuers who braved the harsh conditions to help them.

“I really appreciated the quick reaction of locals,” she said.

“I do want to say thank you to the Coast Guard. They were very empathetic and very professional.”

After being treated at the clinic in Long Island, they were transported via a US Coast Guard chopper to New Providence — finally arriving back home, but under circumstances they could never have imagined hours earlier.

“Even though the pain is unimaginable that Aleitheia passed away, and I don’t know what that feels like [for her loved ones] and I feel terrible, it’s a miracle that people were able to walk away from a plane crash,” said Rolle, who works in the Sustainable Development Goals Unit in the Office of the Prime Minister.

“I can’t explain it. Only God knows. I do feel like God was with me on that plane because I am terrified of heights and I can’t explain why I was not afraid or I knew that I was going to be OK.”

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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