Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Billionaire's yacht hunts for lost plane off Palau

In this Monday, Jan. 31, 2011 file photo, an helicopter floats on the water close to the Octopus yacht, owned by Microsoft's co-founder Paul Allen, at Ushuaia port, some 3,300 km, about 2045 miles, south of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Octopus, a mega-yacht owned by Allen, who visited Guam about a week ago, is in the search for a missing Cessna carrying an American pilot and two Palau police officers that was dispatched to track a larger Chinese boat.
(AP Photo/Alejandro Madril, File)

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's mega-yacht _ and perhaps even the billionaire himself _ are part of a flotilla scouring the Pacific for an American pilot and two Palau police officers whose plane disappeared over the weekend.

The yacht, the Octopus, sailed into a drama over illegal fishing that turned deadly even before the plane vanished off the remote island nation.

A crew member of a Chinese vessel that allegedly poached giant clams from a marine reserve was shot and killed by Palau authorities in a confrontation Saturday. The plane vanished Sunday as it pursued a larger Chinese ship involved in the fishing operation _ a vessel that apparently was set on fire by crew members after officers pursued it overnight.

Allen's spokesman David Postman said Allen had been in the region to support his friend James Cameron, the movie director who recently explored the world's deepest point, the Mariana Trench northeast of Palau.

Allen's 126-meter (414-foot) yacht boasts two helicopters, a submarine and a remote-controlled underwater vessel, which took pictures of nautiluses that Allen posted on his Twitter account Sunday.

That same day, the Octopus picked up radio transmissions from the plane in distress and was among several vessels that alerted the U.S. Coast Guard of its plight, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. j.g. Richard Russell said.

"He's being very modest about his participation," Russell said. "I'm not sure if he's still on board. But for the last few days, he's been lending us both his helicopters in aid of the search. He's been a huge help."

Postman said the Octopus has not been back to port since Allen tweeted the photos, but added that he never discloses Allen's whereabouts because of security concerns.

The events in Palau, about 500 miles east of the Philippines, began unfolding after six Chinese fishermen were spotted diving for giant clams over several days in the Ngeruangel Atoll marine reserve, said to Norbert Yano, Palau's director of public safety.

Yano said state officials tried to intercept the boat Saturday, but the fishermen made a dangerous turn around the pursuing vessel. He said officials firing at the fleeing vessel's engines accidentally shot a fisherman in the thigh.

The wounded man died. Yano said he was taken on a 25-minute journey to a nearby island where a nurse lived, but she couldn't stop the bleeding in time.

The other five fishermen were arrested and told authorities there was a mother ship nearby, Yano said. A patrol boat located the larger ship late Saturday afternoon, he said, and began a chase that would last all night.

At 5:30 a.m. Sunday, authorities noticed the mother ship was engulfed in flames, Yano said. He said he believes crew members deliberately set it on fire and abandoned ship to a small ancillary vessel before they were caught.

Authorities enlisted Palau tourist pilot Frank Ohlinger, an American citizen, to fly two Palau officers to the scene, Yano said. Authorities wanted to get photos and other evidence from the burning ship before it sank.

Russell, the Coast Guard spokesman, said Ohlinger later radioed the airport to say his GPS navigational device had failed. The airport turned its lights on full brightness and shot off flares to try and help guide the plane back, he said.

In his final transmission, at 8:15 p.m., Ohlinger said he was within minutes of running out of fuel.

"He may have become disoriented," Russell said. "He was trying a number of different maneuvers and bearings to try and get closer to where he believed the airport was."

Russell said authorities have yet to find any trace of the plane despite an extensive search over 6,500 square nautical miles that has involved several Coast Guard vessels as well as official Palauan vessels and privately owned craft. He added that the water is relatively warm in the area, which increases the odds of survival.

The missing Palau officers are Willy Towai and Earl Decherong.

"I ask for your prayers for the captain and these two fine young police officers," Palau President Johnson Toribiong wrote on his Facebook page.

Court records show that about 25 Chinese fishermen face a number of charges, including illegal fishing. Wednesday was an official holiday in China, and a call to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs went unanswered.


Nick Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Jennifer Kelleher reported from Honolulu.


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