Costa Rican investigators are looking into what caused a charter aircraft to crash in woods in the country’s northwest soon after takeoff, killing two crewmembers and 10 U.S. citizens, including Jewish families from New York and Florida.
The families from Scarsdale, N.Y., and Belleair, Florida, accounted for nine of the dead, and were part of a tour organized by Berkeley, California-based Backroads. Their American guide was the 10th U.S. victim.
Costa Rican officials had said they were still seeking to establish the names of the Americans who died when the Nature Air plane went down at midday Sunday in Guanacaste.
But back at home, stunned family and friends began to confirm the victims’ identities.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B’nai Israel said Monday that victims’ relatives had informed him that four members of his congregation were also on the plane.
“It is a tragedy that the Drs. Mitchell Weiss and Leslie Weiss and their two children, Hannah and Ari, died in that terrible crash,” he said. “They were a wonderful family who will be missed.”
The Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, where both the Weiss parents practiced mourned their loss in a statement Monday.
“We were deeply grieved this morning to learn of the deaths of two beloved members of our team – Drs. Mitchell and Leslie Weiss,” Kris Hoce, president of Morton Plant Hospital, said in the statement. “Their lives and medical skills have touched so many in and around our community, and we are forever grateful to them. Our sympathies go out to their extended family and many friends who are also trying to process this tragic news.”
The hospital said Mitchell Weiss was a vascular and interventional radiologist and Leslie Weiss was pediatrician.
Mitchell was 52 and Leslie was 50. Their children were 19 and 16, respectively.
A family in the suburbs of New York City said five of the dead were relatives on vacation. They identified them as Bruce Steinberg, 50, his wife Irene, 51, and their sons Matthew, 13, William, 18, and Zachary, 19, all of Scarsdale.
Bruce was a graduate of Columbia Business School, and Irene was active with the UJA-Federation of New York.
Bruce Steinberg’s sister mourned the loss of her brother, sister-in-law and “3 amazing nephews” in a Facebook post Sunday night.
“We are in utter shock and disbelief right now,” Tamara Steinberg Jacobson wrote, thanking those who were reaching out to her and her devastated parents.
Rabbi Jonathan Blake of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale said in a statement posted on the temple’s Facebook page and emailed to The Associated Press that the Steinbergs were involved in philanthropy and local Jewish groups. “This tragedy hits our community very hard,” Blake wrote.
At a news conference Sunday, Enio Cubillo, director of Costa Rica Civil Aviation, said the Nature Air charter crashed shortly after taking off just after noon Sunday from Punta Islita on a planned flight to the capital of San Jose. He said investigators were looking into possible causes.
Cubillo identified the pilot as Juan Manuel Retana and described him as very experienced. Former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said via Twitter that Retana was her cousin.
The same plane had arrived in Punta Islita on Sunday morning from San Jose and was delayed in landing by strong winds, Cubillo said.
NBC News spoke with a witness, Dawn Wolf, who said she was eating lunch with her family near the airport when she saw the doomed plane pass overhead.
The aircraft had a single propeller, she said, adding that such planes are sometimes used to get from small towns to bigger cities for about $50.
“The plane was super low and then all of a sudden [it] veered to the left and crashed into the ground of the mountain sideways, wing first,” she said.
The plane was in the air for less than a minute, Wolf said.
Wolf heard a boom, then she said she saw an explosion 20 seconds later.
The “plane was broken into two,” she said.
In a statement Monday, Backroads spokeswoman Liz Einbinder said their employee on the flight was Amanda Geissler.
“Aboard the flight were nine Backroads guests, a Backroads Trip Leader and two flight crew members,” the statement said. “A second Nature Air flight carrying Backroads guests and another Trip Leader arrived safely in San Jose.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families impacted by this tragedy,” the company’s statement said.
Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis Rivera offered his condolences to the families of the victims via Twitter and said the cause of the crash would be investigated.
Forensic workers recovered the bodies from the wooded site Sunday night. Local fire chief Jhony Garcia said the plane’s wreckage was completely burned up.
Nature Air did not respond to phone and email messages.
(YWN / AP)