Le’Annka Rigby, 26, an analyst and entrepreneur, fought hard to help keep 22-year-old Aleitheia Newbold alive after their plane went down in bushes near Deadman’s Cay Airport in Long Island on Sunday morning.
She recalled the young mother of a six-month-old girl still pleading for help more than 30 minutes after a plane, which was en route to New Providence with seven people on board, dropped from the sky.
Rigby was seated in the copilot’s seat during the flight. She said the plane — a Piper Navajo — had just taken off when the pilot, Brad McPhee, told her he needed to turn around and head back to the airport — something that left her worried.
“I’m in the copilot’s chair, so I’m looking and then I heard this noise that sounded like an alarm or something,” she said.
“He then looks at me and said, ‘We’re going down.’ I don’t think that anything can prepare you for that. It’s not like I’m a pilot. I’m a passenger and I just happen to be in the copilot’s chair and a very skilled pilot just looked at me and said that we’re going down.
“At that point, he was very focused on the instruments and I guess trying to do the best that he could in terms of crash landing and things like that.”
Rigby said she looked back at her best friends, Nia Bethel-Sears and Allicia Rolle, and told them that the plane was going down.
“It was just a shock and one of them was just like, ‘No, no,” she said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going down.’”
Rigby said she then tightened her seat belt and moved some items to protect her feet.
She said she was scared her feet would be crushed during the crash, if she survived.
Asked to describe what she felt as the plane descended, she said, “There’s nothing that can explain it in a nice way, in a good way. You know how they say your belly drops? That’s an underestimation. My soul literally felt like it left my body because you are out of control.”
Rigby said she was worried about the plane nosediving because she was sitting in the front.
She said her mind went blank as the plane crashed.
“I can’t speak for anyone but that probably was the most haunting part of it,” said Rigby when asked about the moment the plane hit the ground.
“It was just deafening. I told myself to stay awake. I never lost consciousness. Thank God. Every nanosecond of that you feel. Every pressure that hits your body; it’s just deafening. It’s the loudest explosion you can think of in your mind. It’s to the point where you can’t even hear it. Then, it’s complete silence.”
After the crash, she lifted herself out of her seat, Rigby said.
She said the pilot then asked her if she was OK.
Rigby said she turned around and saw that the other passengers were in apparent shock at the back of the plane.
“I said, ‘Get out. We need to get out.’ He then starts to reiterate, ‘Get out.’
“The partitions near the cockpit had kind of caved in and so he started pushing them, so we could get out from in the front of the plane,” she said.
“At that point, it really hit that people are crying, people are screaming and just trying to get out. In those seconds, you’re worried about yourself. That’s the only person you can worry about.
“Immediately, I actually called out for my friends … and then all of us just started to get out — everyone on the plane who could have moved. … There were some people on the plane who could not move.
“So, you found yourself going over what you presumed at the time were lifeless bodies and you’re just thinking, ‘I have to get out. I have to get out.’
“My biggest fear was that I had already lived through this part and I could not forgive myself if this plane exploded or a fire started or anything like that.”
‘Stay with us’
Rigby said she saw Newbold when she exited the plane. She said it appeared she had been ejected.
“When Mr. McPhee had gone to assist her, by that time, the other ladies had already left the wreckage because the priority was to get away from the plane in the event of an explosion or something like that,” Rigby said.
“In this moment, it’s just me and Mr. McPhee who were mobile and who could help. I actually tried to leave but he said, ‘No, Le’Annka. I need help.’
“And so, he was assisting another passenger who was disoriented and sitting down. I can’t remember her name right now, but she was a little older. He had her seated but Aleitheia, she was face down.”
Rigby said the pilot asked her to help him with Newbold.
He then lifted her up and put her on her back, she said.
At that moment, according to Rigby, they realized that Newbold was still alive.
“We were speaking and she said, ‘Help me. Help me. Help me,’” she recalled.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re here and we’re helping you.’ Immediately, we were trying to put pressure on the wound and searching through towels and stuff we could find to put it on the wound. She was just saying that she was asthmatic and that she couldn’t really breathe. So, I was trying to elevate her to help with more oxygen flow.
“At this time, the pilot was helping her and he was on the phone trying to get us help. It was a lot going on at the same time. She kept edging her head and saying, ‘Help me. Help me. Help me.’ I told her, ‘We’re here. We’re helping you. Don’t you worry about it.’
“Mr. McPhee asked her, ‘Do you have a child?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Think about your child. We’re going to get out of here.’
“She was speaking. She was hurt. I asked her if she could move her legs, but she said no.
“I tried to lift her up to try to seat her in the upright position, but she said that her back was hurting really bad and that she could not sit up. It was a lot but, for about 35 to 40 minutes, she was still alive.”
Rigby said she performed CPR on Newbold, who later died at the scene of the crash.
She said the last time she performed CPR before Sunday was on her mother.
While she wished she did not have to experience the crash, Rigby lauded McPhee for his response.
“He never stopped (helping Aleithia),” she said.
“He kept saying, ‘Stay with us. Stay with us.’ But when he wasn’t doing CPR. I was doing CPR. When he was on the phone, I was administering CPR.
“When I needed to take a break because my knee was badly injured, he took over while at the same time on the phone speaking with authorities at Air Traffic Control and rendering assistance to the other lady who was disoriented. He was also going into the bushes to see if the other ladies were OK.”
Before the first responders arrived, Rigby worried that she would die in the bushes from a heat stroke or dehydration.
She said they waited for help for at least 45 minutes.
Rigby said she breathed a sigh of relief when the first person, a defense force officer by the name of Knowles, walked through the bushes to rescue them.
“The first two men who came through those bushes gave assistance to Aleitheia,” she said.
“A defense force officer did CPR and another gentleman came. He tried to do CPR, but he said he had to stop because not only is she unresponsive but there’s a really large gash on her head and he would push blood out of that and that was too dangerous.”
In an interview with Eyewitness News on Tuesday, Patsy Higgs, one of the six survivors, suggested that first responders were more focused on locating Bethel-Sears, who is the daughter of Minister of Works and Utilities Alfred Sears.
But according to Rigby, that was not the case.
“She’s talking about when about 10 or 15 of the rescuers finally came in and they were preparing us to walk out,” she said.
“We then started screaming for them to come back to the plane, so we could walk out. That was the moment when Nia, Allicia and Patsy emerged from the bushes.
“One of the rescuers — and I say one very adamantly — said, ‘Where is Sears’ daughter?’ That was not in an attempt to get her out. That was because he was on the phone speaking with her father. He had direct communication with Mr. Sears.
“Nia was the second to last person to get out of the bush. She was the second to last person to be put on oxygen and the second to last to get on the truck to go to the clinic. I can say this confidently because I was on the same truck.”
Residents of Long Island along with the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and Royal Bahamas Police Force have been heralded for their quick response to the crash.
The Air Accident Investigation Authority is investigating the cause of the accident.
Aviation Minister Chester Cooper said the investigation will likely take weeks to complete.