Originally created 01/04/06

Bodies found off Florida's coast



ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Bodies believed to be those of a Georgia pilot and his 16-year-old daughter who were killed in a plane crash 17 days ago off the coast of Vilano Beach were found Monday after a shrimp boat snagged the wreckage of a downed airplane.

Gary Tillman, 47, of Rome, Ga., and his daughter, Hannah, had been missing since their plane disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean on Dec. 18 after taking off from a stop at Craig Airport in Jacksonville. Of the two other passengers, Anna Kipp, 16, was alive after the crash but died shortly after at Flagler Hospital, and Rachel Hostetler, also 16, survived.

Mr. Tillman was taking his daughter and two of her friends on a vacation to the Bahamas.

The shrimp boat Tremallee had just begun dragging its nets on the ocean floor Monday when, at about 7:40 a.m., the nets became hooked on an object that pulled the boat around, said Mallory Wilder, the Fernandina Beach ship's owner and captain.

To extricate themselves, Mr. Wilder and his two-man crew began pulling the nets back on board. While doing so, they spotted a piece of an airplane about the size of a washtub in the net. Then he saw a young woman's body in the net.

Mr. Wilder said he immediately thought he had found the Tillman airplane. He called authorities, and divers sent out to the boat found a Cessna airplane of the same type Mr. Tillman was flying and a man's body inside.

The bodies have been transported to the St. Johns County Medical Examiner's Office for official identification, said Sgt. Chuck Mulligan of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.

The ownership of the airplane also needs to be confirmed.

Still, given the similarities, Sgt. Mulligan said one could "reasonably assume" that the airplane and the bodies are from the Dec. 18 crash.

Sgt. Mulligan said there are no plans to raise the aircraft found in about 41 feet of water roughly one mile east of Vilano Beach.

An investigation into the crash by the National Transportation Safety Board is continuing. Mr. Tillman, who was piloting the airplane, sent out a distress signal shortly before the crash that he was unable to maintain sufficient altitude and told air traffic controllers that he had a "rough-running engine."

The trip to the Bahamas began in Rome and included stops in Jacksonville and Fort Pierce.

St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar said he was "grateful" for the Tremallee having found the bodies. "We may not have been successful without them."