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CEDAR KEY - An impromptu, short, late night sightseeing air tour of the Cedar Keys turned out to be a disastrous affair for three people early Saturday morning, as they perished when the single engine Cessna 206 they were riding in plunged into the Gulf of Mexico.
Pilot Frank Gonzalez, 48, of Plant City; plane owner John Borchard, 43, of Dover; and tourist Julia Kelly, 49, of Solon, Iowa; died in the accident. There were no survivors.
The three were returning from the short excursion when the plane fell into the Gulf some three miles west of the Cedar Key Airport off North Key.
According to witnesses, a fireball was reportedly seen on the Gulf at the time.
The six-seater went down at approximately 12:10 a.m. and people waiting for its return called 911 about a half hour later.
A number of agencies sprang into action to locate the wreckage and recover the bodies.
Those involved in the search and recovery included Cedar Key Police, Levy County Sheriff's Department, Citrus County Sheriff's Department, Florida Fish and Wildlife and the Coast Guard.
However, it took quite a while before any evidence of the crash was discovered.
"There was no debris field and no oil slick," said action Cedar Key Police Chief Virgil Sandlin.
Scott Tummond, Levy Sheriff's spokesman, added that water visibility was very poor where the plane crashed.
"There was zero visibility and the tide was ripping," he added.
The Coast Guard sent a helicopter and rescue boat at 3:30 a.m. They covered a 16-mile area west of the airstrip.
It wasn't until 4 p.m. Saturday when the first body was sighted floating in the water near the southwest corner of North Key by fishermen. It turned out to be Borchard.
Sunday morning, a sidescan sonar device operated by the Citrus County Dive Team had located what turned out to be the fuselage of the Cessna in 15 feet of water some three miles west of North Key.
Levy County divers were able to discover and retrieve the bodies of Gonzalez and Kelly at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) officials were overseeing retrieval of the wreckage as of Tuesday.
On Monday afternoon, the plane was moved up from the deep channel it was resting in onto North Key sandbar. Late Tuesday morning, two Carolina Skiffs and an airboat brought the tail, wings, engine, and fuselage of the downed Cessna on North Key for removal to Quality Aircraft Salvage's yard in Groveland.
The air crash ruined a night of fun for not only the three deceased, but others who had also enjoyed a meal at Frog's Landing and some late night enjoyment at the Big Deck Raw Bar.
Gonzalez, Borchard and four young adults had flown from Plant City to the Cedar Key Airport, landing at sunset Friday.
At the same time, Kelly and sister Amy Davidson of Longboat Key were watching the sunset out at airport and reportedly offered the six a ride into town.
After a night on the town, the sisters gave the six a ride back to the airport, where they were planning to depart back to Plant City.
Back at the airport, someone forgot a camera left back at an earlier stop. Davidson, who was vacationing at Cedar Key with her sister and staying at a condo, said she would give them a ride back to town to retrieve it.
Kelly said she would like to see Cedar Key at night and Borchard and Gonzalez complied.
The fateful flight took off around midnight. Shortly afterward, the fireball was sighted, the plane didn't return and the five back at the airport called 911.
"All the agencies did a fantastic job working together," Tummond said. "I can't give enough praise for Citrus County and their side scan."
Sandlin said it could take up to a year for the FAA to complete its investigation of the crash. Since the weather was clear Friday night, either pilot error or mechanical malfunction loom as the culprit of the crash.
Tummond said autopsies are being performed by the Medical Examiner's office in Gainesville.
Sandlin noted the last fatal crash at Cedar Key was three years ago. He said conditions were foggy and a single pilot aboard perished.