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1 killed in plane crash; 3 missing

By Times staff and wire reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2003

JACKSONVILLE -- A biologist from St. Petersburg is among three people missing after a twin-engine plane went down Sunday in the Atlantic waters off Fernandina Beach.

Emily Argo, 25, a conservation biologist based in St. Petersburg, was part of a team conducting research on endangered whales.

Also missing was Michael Newcomer, 49, a researcher from Los Altos, Calif.; and the pilot, Tom Hinds of Fernandina Beach.

The U.S. Coast Guard found the body of a fourth person, Jackie Ciano, 47, a researcher from Wellfleet, Mass., near the wreckage early Monday.

The scientists were conducting right whale research for Wildlife Trust, a nonprofit wildlife research and conservation organization that works to save threatened and endangered species from extinction through collaborative efforts with local scientists and educators.

"We pray for Michael, Tom and Emily's survival and are devastated by Jackie's loss," said Dr. Mary Pearl, president of Wildlife Trust.

The Coast Guard found the plane's locator beacon Sunday night about eight miles east of Fernandina Beach. Crew members also found a backpack, life jackets, film canisters and some papers.

The plane had taken off from St. Simons Island and was scheduled to return there.

Argo came to St. Petersburg three years ago. Before joining Wildlife Trust, she worked with the Florida Marine Research Institute's manatee photo identification program.

Argo's parents live in Ohio, said James "Buddy" Powell, director of the Aquatic Conservation program of Wildlife Trust.

Powell said Argo was preparing to apply for admission to graduate school. He described her as dedicated and said he thought of her almost as a daughter.

"Just a very wonderful person in general," he said.

The Cessna 337 Skymaster was flying routine right whale surveys under contract with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The North Atlantic right whale is highly endangered, with an estimated 300 remaining.

The surveys are flown each year by federal and private nonprofit organizations from November to March to monitor the migratory habits and reproductive success of right whales. Researches also pinpoint whale locations to alert vessels to avoid collisions with whales.

Rescue aircraft from Coast Guard air stations in Clearwater and Savannah, Ga., along with crew members aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Kingfisher, were aiding in the search efforts, which cover more than 300 square miles.

The Coast Guard Cutter Shrike relieved the Kingfisher on Monday evening.

Also assisting in the search were the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Nassau County Sheriff's Department, Civil Air Patrol and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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