15-Year-Old Plane Crash Survivor Honored By Coast Guard

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

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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.

Coast Guard spokesman Grant DeVuyst says 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 says.

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

Jose Vasquez and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Dan Abel on Thursday. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Alaska)
Jose Vasquez and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Dan Abel on Thursday. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Alaska)

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 says Vasquez then found three cell phones 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 says.

He says 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 says.

The Coast Guard honored Vasquez during a ceremony closed to media at Juneau’s Federal Building. DeVuyst says 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 says he’s getting physical therapy. He has a swollen leg, back pain and will have to have some teeth removed. Wife Sandra Herrera Lopez had been medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He says she had several fractures to her head, arm, ankle, collarbone and ribs. She’s since been transferred to another hospital in Seattle.

Hoonah resident Ernestine Hanlon-Abel is still at Harborview. Her husband Tom Abel says 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.