The Naples Daily News | January 25, 2003
By DENISE ZOLDAN, email@example.com
Trapped in a helicopter filled with water, the door up against the bottom of the river and a safety belt that wouldn't budge, Rudi Dekkers started to panic.
On the coldest day of the year in Southwest Florida on Friday, Dekkers crashed his 1972 FH-1100 helicopter into an ice-cold Caloosahatchee River.
The 46-year-old native from Holland, whose Huffman Aviation flight school made national headlines when it was discovered it trained two Sept. 11 terrorists, nearly drowned trying to escape his sunken aircraft. But a friend and fellow chopper pilot pulled the freezing Dekkers from the river, dragging him to shore as he clung with both hands to the chopper's skids.
"I really thought I was going to die today," said the Bonita Springs resident, hours after surviving an episode unmatched by any reality TV show.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.
Friday started much like any other day for Dekkers.
He left his Barefoot Beach home at 6:28 a.m. as the sun was beginning to rise and the temperature registered 33 degrees. He headed north to Southwest Florida International Airport to fly his helicopter to Huffman Aviation in Venice.
Before leaving the airport, he and friend Tony Douangdara, 35, also a chopper pilot, shared a cup of coffee. Douangdara was headed to Venice in the WINK-TV helicopter to pick up a reporter. He asked Dekkers if he would join him tonight on a chopper job flying over crops to keep them from freezing and Dekkers agreed.
The two pilots left the Fort Myers airport five minutes apart. Douangdara took off separately at 7:10 a.m. and Dekkers followed.
But by the time Dekkers was in the air, Douangdara was clearing Page Field. Dekkers asked Page Field to give Douangdara a message to wait up, he wanted to fly together.
"It's so boring. I do it every day. It's fun to ride side by side," Dekkers said, adding that he seldom gets a chance to do so.
But 10 minutes after takeoff, something went terribly wrong. Dekkers' engine sputtered and quit.
"I lost speed and noticed immediately that I was losing RPMs in the blade. I realized I was above water and could not make a safe landing," he said.
He was over the middle of the Caloosahatchee River just west of the Edison Bridge.
When a helicopter engine quits you go straight down, he said. "And you only have a couple of seconds to think what to do."
He radioed Douangdara and told him he was going down.
Then he unbuckled his safety belt but left on his shoulder harness. He opened the right door, thinking it would be easier to get out after the crash. He figured the impact would throw him through the front windshield if he took off his shoulder harness.
But the plane hit the water at 40 mph to 50 mph, shattering the front windshield and instantly filling it with water. The force of the impact flipped the helicopter onto its right side — covering the escape route.
"In one or two seconds the plane was upside down and I was facing the bottom of the river," Dekkers said.
Visibility was zero.
"It was pitch black," Dekkers said.
He was wearing a bulky sweater and jacket, and couldn't get out of the shoulder harness. He struggled for four or five seconds, gulped down water and began to panic.
"I thought this was it. I thought about my wife and kids and thought they were going to have to do it without me," he said.
Then a thought came to him.
"Get out of the jacket," he said.
He slipped out of the jacket and felt his way to the right side of the plane. The door had jammed forward, leaving a clear escape route but the hole faced the bottom.
Dekkers put his left leg underneath the 2,000-pound aircraft and pried it upward, escaping underwater beneath it.
"I had to push away from ground. I used my weight as leverage and made an opening between it and the bottom of the river," he said.
He swam to the surface of the possibly 10-foot deep water. By then the chopper had flipped upside down completely. Only the skids were showing.
Douangdara had circled around, and as Dekkers got to the top of the skids, Douangdara was overhead. Dekkers waved that he was OK.
But Douangdara kept coming closer and Dekkers realized he was offering to help. Winds were 20 knots and waves were choppy, but Douangdara took the chopper dangerously low to the water for Dekkers to grab hold.
He lifted Dekkers about 20 feet high and took him to the south side of the river, to the back yard of a newly built but-not-yet occupied home that had an uncaged pool.
Dekkers laid on the side of grass for a few seconds, exhausted, and waved to Douangdara that he was all right. Then he hoisted himself up to get into the pool.
The pool water was around 55 degrees and Dekkers said it felt warm.
Bruised, and battered from the impact, freezing from the cold and wet, Dekkers decided he needed to get help quick.
He scaled a fence to get to the other side of the street, cutting his finger, then waved down a driver who was about to take his child to school. Dekkers told the man he had just crashed into the river and asked if he would call an ambulance, police or take him to the hospital.
But the man said he had to take his child to school. Another neighbor walking a dog offered to take him, and about that time the ambulance arrived.
It took emergency worker 10 minutes of warming Dekkers with thermal blankets before the lowest temperature on the ear-thermometer registered his 91.8 degrees, Dekkers said.
Doctors at Lee Memorial Hospital told Dekkers that the weight-loss and exercise program he has been on for the past year is what saved him.
Dekkers said his chopper, which was uninsured, was valued at $100,000.
The crash was another incident in a string of troubles that have plagued Dekkers since he arrived in the United States 10 years ago Friday.
And his luck had gotten worse since Huffman Aviation unwittingly trained terrorists Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi to fly. Dekkers closed his Naples business Ambassador Airlines in December 2001 after falling on financial hard times. Huffman Aviation flight school wasn't making any money either, he said.
The day before the chopper crash, The Associated Press reported Dekkers was about to be arrested by the State Attorney's Office on felony fraud charges for selling a building without paying back a promissory note-holder $300,000. Dekkers has denied wrongdoing and provided documents Friday showing the complainant no longer wants to pursue the matter.
Dekkers says his luck changed Friday.
"This is a blessed day," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I don't have to go to court, I am still alive and I sold my business."
There's Something About Rudi...
Dekker's helicopter crashed on way to showdown over Huffman Aviation
Venice, FL.—January 28, 2003
Despite settling his lawsuit with former partner Wally Hilliard, Rudi Dekker's legal woes may be just beginning, says State's Attorney Jonathon Greene.
Meanwhile it was learned that Dekker’s still-unexplained helicopter crash last Friday came while he was en-route to a Venice, FL. meeting to sign papers relinquishing control of terror flight school Huffman Aviation.
In the space of little more than a week the tumultuous Dekkers crashed his helicopter into the Caloosahatchee River, learned he would be arrested on felony fraud by the state attorney's office, and signed over the flight school that gave him his 15 minutes of fame.
Rudi Dekker’s picaresque adventures made the news from Sarasota to South Africa, testifying to an abiding public curiosity about him.
At theaters everywhere: 'There's Something about Rudi.'
"Real life never seemed so deranged."
Take his helicopter crash. Did Dekkers suspect trouble was in store?
Though the trip to Venice from the Naples-Fort Myers area is less than an hour long, Dekkers prevailed on another helicopter pilot headed in the same direction to fly alongside him, "in an effort to stave off boredom."
"Who you calling 'we,' white man?"
Then things begin going very wrong for Rudi, even before his chopper begins experiencing difficulties.
When his more powerful helicopter surged ahead, pilot Tony Douangdara told the Venice Gondolier, Dekkers seemed upset.
"He was calling me on the radio saying 'Slow down, slow down!" said Douangdara.
"A couple minutes later, I heard him say, 'I'm going down.' "
All things considered, it was a bad week for Rudi. Just several days before the helicopter crash he learned he was being arrested for fraud.
Dekker's response was "Wow, I'm surprised."
Later, after he overcame his incredulity, he called the charge "political," heaping some thinly-veiled scorn on the man prosecuting him, State's Attorney Jonathon Greene.
"We're drawing the paperwork as we speak that resolves the deal. We have a deal, we know about it. Everybody knows about it except the state attorney."
Wally Hilliard, present at the contract signing Friday, was agreeable to dismissing the suit, confirmed Jim Beach, director of operations for Triple Diamond enterprises, the new owners.
When he completed the sale of Huffman Friday, Dekkers expected his problems to go away. He indicated his legal woes would end when Wally Hilliard dropped his lawsuit, an action which he believed would trigger the dismissal of the criminal fraud charge filed against him in connection with a $200,000 loan...a loan he secured with a mortgage on property in the name of a company which had no interest in the property.
This is what people mean when they say "Nice work if you can get it."
Dekkers said, "We don't have problems anymore."
In Deep Dutch
Not so fast, says State's Attorney Jonathon Greene. "Wally Hilliard called me and asked for a waiver of prosecution," he told us.
"But I told him that nothing has changed on our end. We're going forward with the charges."
Greene indicated that Dekkers record includes a number of blemishes, like owing $3 million in the Netherlands, some of which is also the result of pledging assets he doesn't own to secure loans he doesn't plan on repaying.
A Dutch court had adjudged him guilty of acting "in a manifestly improper fashion;" saying his "manifest failure to properly manage the company was an important cause of bankruptcy."
Aviation sources in Naples confirmed rumors we had heard to the effect that Dekkers had been the subject of a federal investigation in the mid-90's, with several federal agencies expressing interest in his activities.
State Attorney Greene confirmed that Dekkers had been under suspicion of illegal exportation of high technology.
Coming full circle, officials indicate that there is renewed prosecutorial interest in Dekkers at the federal level.
What makes the controversial Dekkers something more than a run-of-the-mill con-man and quick-fading historical footnote is an important fact that remains unacknowledged, except obliquely, by U.S. officials:
Rudi Dekkers sits at the critical nexus of the terrorist conspiracy. Much relies on his claims to having been just an innocent business owner.
Cliff notes on a national tragedy
Should Dekkers not be telling the truth--an action he takes with awe-inspiring regularity--the clear conclusion will be that Mohamed Atta didn't 'just happen' to stumble onto Venice, FL. like a guy who's been listening to Tom Petty albums all his life.
(Atta liked the Beastie Boys--no joke--but that's a story for another time.)
If Mohamed Atta didn't stumble onto Venice, then we have stumbled onto that fabled Global Network... because it's undeniable that when the Hamburg cadre made their their fateful leap across the Atlantic, it was Rudi Dekkers assigning bunks when they arrived on the other side of the Big Pond.
At one time officials in Washington promised explanations in the wake of the Sept 11 disaster. They were not forthcoming. The official explanation, such as it was, was delivered by a seemingly-nice guy who calmly and clearly explained what we were supposed to think had happened.
But he wasn't a U.S. official. He isn't even American.
It was left to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to publicly sketch out for the first time the Cliff notes version of the case against Osama Bin Laden.
"Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization with ties to a Global Network," Blair said.
There it was again. A Global Network.
The idea that Mohamed Atta might have benefited from ties to a Global Network (other than his own) flatly contradicts the FBI's entire scenario, which rests on a firm contention that the terrorists received no outside help while they were in this country.
It is a position the FBI has held tenaciously during the year and some months since the disaster. And it has probably helped the Bureau discourage speculation about 'anomalies' in the terrorist’s milieu.
When you're playing for time, every little bit helps.
But now the FBI's statement of 'no outside help' is the first official pronouncement rendered ‘inoperative’ by the coming scandal, after the co-chairs of the Congressional Intelligence investigation into 9/11 delivered a real bombshell (even though it went largely unnoted, perhaps because of the current imbroglio known as the "Showdown with Saddam.")
A foreign government had been involved in supporting and facilitating the activities of the terrorist conspiracy while they were in the U.S., Senator Bob Graham told reporters.
"I was surprised at the evidence that there were foreign governments involved in facilitating the activities of at least some of the terrorists in the United States," said Graham.
"I think there is very compelling evidence that at least some of the terrorists were assisted—not just in financing although that was part of it—by a sovereign foreign government."
So much for the "Lone Cadre" theory.
The Magic Dutch Boy theory--which holds that two Dutch nationals buying the two flight schools in tiny Venice at more or less the same time is just another freak coincidence--is next.
An unexplainable yearning for blue-haired widow ladies?
So what's the name of the foreign government involved?
Alas, in its infinite Total Information-like wisdom, our government has decided that 'we're not cleared for that information.'
Since the foreign government involved presumably already knows who it is, this seems a bit difficult to understand...
Because it seems that they're not hiding anything from anyone but us.
"It will become public at some point when it's turned over to the archives, but that's 20 or 30 years from now," Graham said.
In the under-statement of the year, he went on, "We need to have this information now because it's relevant to the threat that the people of the United States are facing today."
Every once in a great while an American politician utters something shockingly close to the truth.
Hearts beat faster, pulses race, hope rises. You know what happens next.
But back to the unnamed foreign government's involvement...
The logical place to go to look for evidence would seem to be Venice, FL., the retirement community on Florida’s Gulf Coast inexplicably chosen by Mohamed Atta and his Hamburg cadre to be the American home of their ghastly operation.
While it is already well-known that Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi lived in Venice for the first six months after their arrival, what's still being kept under wraps although its been attested to both by credit card receipts and eyewitnesses, is this:
Atta returned to Venice--and often--during the last several months before the attack, visiting on at least three occasions during just the last six weeks of his life.
Since the only rival to September 11 in its dramatic impact on the country is the Kennedy assassination, it seems fair to ask whether the 9/11 Commission will be as ineffectual as the Warren Commission in getting at the truth.
Might Rudi Dekkers turn out to be the 9/11 Commission's David Ferrie ?
Most people remember Pilot David Ferrie as the nervous guy played by Joe Pesci in Oliver Stone's JFK. A shadowy figure, Ferrie had a mysterious relationship with the JFK scandal’s early prototype for the Army of One: Lee Harvey Oswald.
Then Ferrie was found dead, suspiciously, on the eve of testifying to investigators for Jim Garrison. Ferrie committed ‘suicide,’ authorities said, which was odd, because suicide was exactly the fate Ferrie had been worrying out loud about suffering.
Forty years on, Rudi Dekkers is just another in a long line of shadowy figures who have haunted more-recent American history.
His image will grow even shadier if it turns out that he had a slightly more complicated relationship with the terrorist ringleader than has so far been revealed.
Still, in Hollywood, they're probably already talking about the movie.
We have no opinion on who should play Dekkers.
We just think somebody should tell him not to fly for a while.