HONOLULU — In the final moments of her life, Hawaii Health Director Loretta Fuddy clung to the hand of her deputy after a small plane taking them back to Honolulu crashed in the ocean off the island of Molokai.
Fuddy, who gained notoriety in 2011 for her role in making President Barack Obama's birth certificate public, was one of nine people onboard the flight that went down Wednesday. She was the only one who died.
In the water, Fuddy held hands with deputy director Keith Yamamoto as he tried to help her relax, said the Rev. Patrick Killilea, who consoled Yamamoto after the ordeal.
"He recounted how he said he helped Loretta into her life jacket and he held her hand for some time," the priest said. "They were all floating together and she let go and there was no response from her."
Coast Guard rescuers who arrived after making the half-hour flight from Oahu to the neighbor island said Thursday that the single-engine turboprop aircraft wasn't visible when they got there, only the nine passengers floating across about a half-mile of water littered with random debris.
The rescuers in two helicopters and an HC-130 airplane said the people were in clusters and acted calm when help arrived.
"I'm sure they were exhausted," Aviation Survival Technician P.J. Ornot said. The passengers were wearing inflatable yellow life jackets, floating on their backs in the water, he said.
Rescue swimmer Mark Peer said when he swam to Fuddy, she was unresponsive and he couldn't find a pulse.
"It was not a good feeling," he said.
The crash occurred when the single engine of the 2002 Cessna Grand Caravan failed soon after it took off from Molokai and made its turn toward Honolulu, said Richard Schuman, owner of Makani Kai Air, operator of the plane.
Schuman said the pilot did his best to get the plane down safely and keep the passengers together in the water. Asked how they survived, he responded: "Will."
"There's only one engine on that plane, and when it quits on you, you just have to deal with it in that moment," he said.
Three passengers were pulled from the water by the two Coast Guard helicopters, and Maui fire crews picked up others. One person swam ashore.
Other details remained sketchy Thursday on how Fuddy, 65, was killed and how the others survived. Molokai General Hospital Vice President Randy Lite said Fuddy's body will remain at the hospital until an autopsy is conducted.
Schuman said he did not yet know why the engine failed because he has not been able to see the plane. The aircraft had no previous problems, he said.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said investigators planned to speak with the pilot, whose name was not released, and some passengers about the crash as they seek more details.
However, the location of the wreckage, combined with wind and wave conditions, likely means it won't be recovered, said NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie said Fuddy was loved and respected.