By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) – Rescue crews searched Lake Erie on Friday for signs of a twin-engine plane carrying six people that went missing on Thursday night soon after taking off from an Ohio airport, officials said.
The 11-seat aircraft dropped off radar just before 11 p.m. local time after leaving Burke Lakefront Airport on the shore of Lake Erie north of downtown Cleveland, U.S. Coast Guard Chief of Response Michael Mullen told a news conference on Friday.
The Cessna Citation 525, bound for Ohio State University Airport, disappeared after flying about two miles over the lake, Mullen said.
John Fleming, 46, the chief executive of Columbus-based beverage distributor Superior Beverage Group, is believed to have been piloting the plane, the Columbus Dispatch reported.
Also on board were Fleming’s wife, their two teenage sons and two of their neighbors, the newspaper reported, citing an interview with Fleming’s father, John W. Fleming.
The group was returning to Columbus after attending the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball game against the Boston Celtics, the Dispatch reported.
Mullen said a watercraft search for survivors had been halted on Thursday night due to 12 to 14 foot seas, but it resumed on Friday morning.
Lake Erie is the fourth-largest by surface area of North America’s five Great Lakes, and also the most shallow. It is 210 feet at its deepest point, which makes for rough and unpredictable waters.
“The seas have subsided a little bit,” Mullen said. “We also have better daylight at this particular time and better visibility.”
Coast guard crews searched with boats, a helicopter and fixed-wing plane over a section of Lake Erie that is about 50 feet deep, Mullen said, adding that there were no signs of debris.
He said there was no evidence of an emergency call before communications with the aircraft stopped. He declined to identify the people on board.
The water temperature was around 35 degrees F, according to the National Weather Service.
Asked about the chances of survival considering the water temperature and high seas, Mullen said “it comes down to a person’s will to survive.”
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Toni Reinhold)