C. Phillip Hollstein Jr. said Friday he was surprised to learn later that one of the travelers was killed, Hawaii Health Director Loretta Fuddy. The others on board suffered only minor injuries.
When the lone engine of the small plane failed, the nine people on board stayed calm as the aircraft glided toward the ocean and made a remarkably smooth belly landing, Hollstein recounted.
He said the pilot, Clyde Kawasaki, expertly maneuvered the plane after the engine failed, avoiding what could have been a catastrophic impact on the water.
"He did everything right," Hollstein said. "He set it up for the best crash-landing you could do."
The engine on Makani Kai Air's 2002 Cessna Grand Caravan turboprop cut out less than a minute after takeoff from the island of Molokai on Wednesday afternoon, just as the plane was making a turn toward its destination of Honolulu, Hollstein said.
There was a "muffled bang," he said, and "then we were a glider."
"Everyone was real quiet. We hit (the water), and it was all about getting the belts off," Hollstein said. People put on life jackets and remained in the plane until it started sinking, he said.
"There wasn't panic or anything. It was very orderly. It wasn't like any of the movies or the TV shows," Hollstein said.
Hollstein swam for shore when he saw that everyone was out of the plane, guessing it took 90 minutes.
Fuddy, who gained attention after deciding to publicly release President Barack Obama's Hawaii birth certificate in 2011 to rebut claims he was not born in the United States, was clinging to the hand of her deputy, Keith Yamamoto.
Yamamoto tried to help the 65-year-old relax, according to the Rev. Patrick Killilea, who consoled Yamamoto after the crash.
"He recounted how he said he helped Loretta into her life jacket and he held her hand for some time," the priest said. "They were all floating together, and she let go and there was no response from her."
Hollstein said Fuddy was doing fine during the landing and getting out of the airplane.
"Her assistant was really watching her. He was taking care of her," he said.
Kawasaki, a 60-year-old veteran pilot, and the other passengers were pulled from the water by rescuers. Kawasaki was flown to Honolulu, and when his son, Robert Kawasaki, met him at the airport, he still was wearing his wet pants.
The elder Kawasaki banged his head on the plane's control panel during the crash, and his son took him to a hospital for treatment.
"He's very broken up about (Fuddy's death)," the son said.
Fuddy and Yamamoto were on the flight after an annual visit to Kalaupapa, where the state exiled leprosy patients until 1969. The settlement is still run by the health department, though only a few former leprosy patients live there.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash and probably won't have the benefit of examining the plane. The location of the wreckage, combined with wind and wave conditions, likely means it won't be recovered, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Makani Kai Air owner Richard Schuman said he has no idea why the engine failed. The plane had no previous problems, he said.
John Frank, executive director of the Cessna Pilots Association, said the Grand Caravan has a reliable engine.
"It's very unusual to have an inflight failure of this engine—almost unheard of, actually, unless there's some contributing factor like fuel not being available to the engine or something," Frank said.
Robert Kawasaki said his father has had a lifelong passion for flying and didn't panic when the engine went out.
"To land on its belly with all the waves, that's pretty impressive," he said. "He's a glider pilot, too. So he knows what to do when a plane is stuck in a glide."
Associated Press writers Oskar Garcia and Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.