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Crated dogs, cats presumed dead after plane skids into Florida river

In a photo released by law enforcement, a Boeing 737 charter jet sits in the St. Johns River after sliding off a runway at a naval air station in Jacksonville, Fla., May 3, 2019. All of the 136 passengers and seven crew members were rescued; the flight had originated in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Jacksonville Sheriff's Office via The New York Times)

Several crated dogs and cats were in the cargo hold of a charter flight that slid off a Florida runway and into the St. Johns River on Friday evening. Now, after multiple attempts to locate them with the bottom half of the plane still under water, investigators say they have been unable to rescue the animals, according to the Associated Press.

Barring a second "miracle on the St. Johns," the pets are presumed dead.

The Miami Air International Boeing 737, inbound from the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, skidded as it came in for a landing at Naval Air Station Jacksonville around 9:40 p.m., the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department said. Everyone on board, 136 passengers and seven crew members, survived without critical injuries. Twenty-one people were transported to local hospitals, according to the fire department, but only one was hospitalized - a 3-month-old - out of precaution.

A 16-person rescue team sent by the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash site on Saturday and recovered the aircraft's "black box" data recorder. At the time the plane was still "partially submerged in shallow water and its nose cone was sliced off, apparently from the impact," the AP reports.

"I think it is a miracle," said Capt. Michael Connor, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Jacksonville. "We could be talking about a different story this evening."

Connor announced there were no pet carriers found in the cargo hold or discovered above water, the outlet reported. Investigators also listened for barking, meows or other animal noises, but heard nothing.

In emails obtained by The Washington Post, senior Navy officials were told that all passengers on the plane were housed overnight on cots on at the hospital at the base in Jacksonville. Crew members were planning to get back on the plane Saturday to recover what they could from overhead luggage bins.

A spokesperson at Naval Air Station Jacksonville told The Post that the flight was a regularly operated trip. Coincidentally, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue division had trained its Special Operations team and marine units in protocol for a similar incident earlier Friday.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced Friday that teams had quickly contained any jet fuel from contaminating the river water. The White House also called to offer assistance, Curry said.

In a statement released early Saturday, Boeing extended its "well wishes to all those involved." The Boeing 737-800, first flew in April 2001 and is the oldest of six aircraft in Miami Air International's fleet, according to the Aviation Safety Network. It has been leased in several stints to airlines in Europe. While operating a charter flight for NASCAR drivers in 2012, the same plane taxied off a runway in Concord, N.C., and got stuck in mud before takeoff, but was pulled out without suffering major damage.

It was not immediately clear what caused the plane to overshoot the runway, but it landed in a thunderstorm, with lightning nearby and heavy rain on the runway, according to the Weather Network. Boeing has recently come under scrutiny for the safety of their planes following two deadly crashes of the 737 MAX, a newer model.

NTSB chairman Bruce Landsberg noted that the aircraft had no prior history of accidents, according to the AP. There is still an ongoing investigation into the cause of Saturday's accident.

The plane's passengers included military members and civilians, Connor said at a news conference. Some passengers were traveling to Florida to see their families, while others were going on to other states, Connor said.

The U.S. Navy operates a base at Guantanamo Bay, on land it leases from the Cuban government. Since 2002, there has been a military prison at the base, where detainees in the U.S. war on terrorism, as well as foreign combatants from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have been held. Visitors to Guantanamo are required to have a sponsor at the base.

Cheryl Bormann, a criminal defense attorney and passenger on the flight, told CNN's Don Lemon the plane flew through thunderstorms on the approach to Jacksonville.

"As we went down, we had a really hard landing," she told Lemon. "And then the plane bounced and screeched and bounced some more . . . then it came to a complete, like, crash-stop."

When things calmed down in the cabin, passengers tried to figure out where they had landed. "We were in water," Bormann said. "We couldn't tell where we were, whether it was a river or an ocean. There was rain coming down. There was lightning and thunder. And we stood on that wing for a significant period of time. Rescue folks came and eventually someone inflated a life raft that had been on the plane and we began climbing into it. Everybody was helping everybody."

This article was written by Deanna Paul and Marisa Iati, reporters for The Washington Post.