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Divers find plane, two bodies in ocean near Brookings

BROOKINGS — Divers Thursday found a missing plane from Grants Pass upside down on the ocean floor near Brookings and have so far recovered two bodies.

The plane had been missing since July 4, when it apparently went down shortly after takeoff from Brookings. On board were pilot John Belnap, 46, his son Max, 17, and friend Ryan Merker, 17.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel said the names of the recovered people will be released after they have been positively identified by a medical examiner.

The recovery effort was in its 16th day Thursday when a diver found the plane near Rainbow Rock, a few miles northwest of Brookings. Searchers knew they were close, having found more debris from the wreckage Wednesday.

Daniel, who was on one of the boats at the time, said a diver went down, came up and notified searchers of what was found. That was shortly after 10 a.m. The first body was then brought to a Coast Guard station and released to a mortuary.

The second body was found today 30 feet from the wreckage of the plane, Daniel told the Daily Courier.

According to Daniel, the plane was partly covered in sand, and was separated from its engine.

Three seats from the plane were in the area. The first body was found under a wing, and divers could not see all the way into the fuselage.

Boats from four counties — Curry, Josephine, Douglas and Wasco — were in the water, along with a boat equipped with a sonar device that spotted an area of interest, with oil and gas in the area, about 100 feet from a previous area of interest.

Curry County Sheriff John Ward told the Curry Coastal Pilot newspaper that the wreckage was discovered in rocky terrain at a depth of about 55 feet a half-mile offshore from Rainbow Rock.

The plane was badly damaged. Sonar readings indicated the engine was separated from the fuselage, Ward said, and the plane is broken into numerous pieces.

"The seats were out, broken; the seat belts broke," Ward told the Pilot. "That indicates it was a violent crash."

The exact crash site has now been marked by a buoy. Daniel said a barge would be needed to salvage the wreck and that the focus is on recovering the other body.

The dive teams were not able to find the third body before the seas became too rough Friday morning.

"It's bittersweet," Daniel said. "A lot of people put in a lot of time and effort. The whole purpose of this operation is closure, and that comes from recovering all three.

"We're saddened we weren't able to recovery everybody."

Daniel spoke via telephone at about 1 p.m. Thursday from Brookings.

The sheriff had just endured a difficult 24 hours, having responded Wednesday to what turned out to be a fatal motorcycle crash on Winona Road, north of Grants Pass.

Also Thursday, personnel from his office recovered the body of a rafter who drowned Sunday on the Wild Section of the Rogue River west of Galice.

The fact that plane pilot John Belnap also was a member of Josephine County's own dive team made things only harder.

"Yesterday was a 19-year-old who passed away on my knees," Daniel said, sounding weary. "Now, we've pulled a body out of the ocean. Hopefully, we can stop this, all these tragedies."

Daniel said personnel from his understaffed office were being pulled in several different directions.

"It's a struggle," he said.