NAPLES — Three prominent Naples businessmen were among those feared dead Monday after a small plane crashed into the sea Sunday en route from the Bahamas to Florida.
The Piper Cherokee Six aircraft was registered to a Naples business.
Bahamian police have said the three on board were pilot David Howell, Andrew Peterson and J.P. Antonmattei, all of the Naples area.
A spokesman for Howell’s family said five people, the three men mentioned above and a married couple, were on the plane at one point during the trip that began from Naples on Thursday. But the couple stayed behind in Nassau.
“We’re all in shock,” said Pat Walmer, Howell’s first flight instructor, who was acting as the Howell family spokesman. “To some it’s surreal. To some it’s sunk in already. It’s really tough. You never expect it to happen.”
The plane took off from New Providence island en route to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. The weather report at several thousand feet elevation showed 33-knot winds.
National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Dixon, in Miami, said he could not say whether weather was a factor in the crash.
He said thunderstorms could have been embedded in a line of showers that moved across that part of the Bahamas late Sunday afternoon, after moving through the Naples area overnight Saturday.
The Bahamas Civil Aviation Department Air Traffic Services was notified at 4:40 p.m. Sunday that the Piper had ditched two miles off Bimini, according to Senior Deputy Director Eugene Butler. Butler said in a statement that the accident resulted in the deaths of three, the male pilot and two male passengers.
Sgt. Chrislyn Skippings of the Royal Bahamas Police Force said Sunday that a search turned up no sign of the people aboard the aircraft. Skippings said the crash occurred in the ocean northeast of the Bimini Bay Resort.
However, Butler said the Coast Guard recovered one body, but the Coast Guard denied that claim Monday.
Spokesman Bobby Nash said the Coast Guard was at the site of the crash but “never got close enough to do anything.”
He said a couple of citizens in nearby boats, at least one of whom was a diver, told authorities that they had seen what appeared to be people in the plane.
“The Coast Guard hasn’t recovered anyone because we’re not involved,” Nash said. “We’re assisting ... the lead agency.”
Though there was confusion surrounding the recovery of bodies, when asked if authorities have given the families any indication the men could have survived, Walmer said: “From what we’re being told, no.”
“Right now they have turned it into a recovery mode,” Walmer said. “The Bahamian version of the (Federal Aviation Administration) is going to start collecting the remains of the aircraft tomorrow.”
Howell had three sons and turned 45 Wednesday. He was the pilot and co-owner of the plane and had been flying since 1995. That was about the time Howell opened Naples Patio after having worked his way up through the furniture business. He opened at least six stores that have since closed and also owned Elegant Outdoors.
“He was a self-made man,” Walmer said. “He was very young when he started. It was amazing. He just paid attention to everything and taught himself the business.”
Antonmattei, who was described as Howell’s best friend, was recently named president of the Naples Area Board of Realtors (NABOR) and had been an agent with Amerivest Realty since 2008. His Facebook page shows he turned 42 in December.
Brenda Fioretti, president-elect of NABOR, said: “As a board, we’re trying to stay calm and not make any comments until we have absolute confirmation.”
Marcie LaRochelle, a real estate agent who worked in partnership with Antonmattei, received a call from Antonmattei’s wife, Laurie Saunders, at 1 a.m. Monday with the news that Antonmattei had been lost in a plane crash.
The three men had been on a business trip with the married couple, who were investors concerning a project in Cistern Cay, Bahamas, LaRochelle said.
The identity of the married couple could not be verified Monday but multiple blog posts on Bahamapress.com from user names Patrick and Sasha identified themselves as the couple who remained in Nassau after the three Naples men left for Florida.
“We are still praying for a miracle and can’t believe that sort of thing might happen to such great people, so full of life and energy,” Patrick wrote. “We feel honored to have met them.”
The posters left two e-mail addresses and a note for family to contact them so they could share their trip photographs and video. They declined to comment to the Daily News late Monday, saying they were not ready to speak yet.
Antonmattei said on his LinkedIn Web site that as a real estate agent he was pursuing his dreams.
“I have become a savvy Real Estate Consultant and Investor,” he wrote. “Current portfolio emphasis is on the incredibly well valued market of South Florida, the booming marketplace within the Republic of Panama and the always rewarding Caribbean Paradise!”
LaRochelle had been invited to go on the trip, she said, but stayed to be with her son at his karate tournament.
“He was like a brother,” LaRochelle said of Antonmattei. “David Howell was probably his best friend and the three of us would go out. It doesn’t feel possible.”
Howell had been working on opening a bed and breakfast, said Maria Richman, manager of East Indies Home & Patio. She knew Howell from when his business had been next door.
She also knew Antonmattei; he was her real estate agent.
“You rarely find people that are really nice and warm,” said the former Californian. “Both of them were very friendly. David would stop by here and say hello. JP was very nice and energetic. They were flying a lot.”
Maria Richman’s husband, Allen Richman, is a retired commercial pilot and owned several Piper aircraft like the one Howell flew.
“It’s a real easy plane to fly,” Richman said. “That’s an excellent airplane. It has an excellent safety record.”
Antonmattei had invited Richman to fly to the Bahamas with them on Howell’s plane a couple of months back but Richman said he wouldn’t fly a single-engine plane there, though he didn’t mention that to Antonmattei.
“It’s a pretty good stretch over water with just one engine if it quits,” Richman said.
Walmer had every faith in Howell’s flying.
“David made numerous trips out to the islands,” Walmer said. “People have different opinions on whether it was safe or not. There are single-engine planes all over the Bahamas.”
Little information was immediately known about Peterson, the third man onboard.
Paul Messino was one of four owners of the Piper with Howell and had logged more than 100 hours in the ill-fated plane. Messino had to rent another aircraft on Thursday because of Howell’s trip to the Bahamas the same day.
“It’s that eerie feeling that you’ve been there, ya know,” Messino said of having spent so much time in the downed plane. “Dave was a great pilot and friend. It is a tragic event. My heart goes out to the families involved. These men will be missed by all.”