Thu, Apr 05, 2012 - Page 1 News List

Billionaire’s yacht hunts for lost plane off Palau

HIGH-SEAS DRAMA:The plane went missing in a search for fleeing Chinese fishermen who allegedly poached clams before Palauan authorities killed one of their mates

AP, WELLINGTON

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s mega-yacht — and perhaps even the billionaire himself — are part of a flotilla scouring the Pacific for a US 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 on Saturday. The plane vanished on Sunday as it pursued a larger Chinese ship involved in the fishing operation — a vessel that was apparently 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 126m 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 US Coast Guard of its plight, coast guard spokesman Lieutenant J.G. Richard Russell said.

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, a diplomatic ally of Taiwan about 805km off the Philippines, began unfolding after six Chinese fishermen were spotted diving for giant clams over several days in the Ngeruangel Atoll marine reserve, Palauan director of public safety Norbert Yano said.

Yano said state officials tried to intercept the boat on 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 on Saturday afternoon, he said, and began a chase that would last all night.

At 5:30am on 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 Palauan tourist pilot Frank Ohlinger, a US 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 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 to help guide the plane back, he said.

In his final transmission, at 8:15pm, 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.”

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