Tina Cook and Pam Miletello have never given up on finding their husbands.
A year after the plane crash that took the lives of Dexter Brewer and Gerald Miletello and pilot Ronald Gregory, Cook and Pam Miletello believe they know what happened. But they still have not been able to recover the men’s bodies or the last of the wreckage.
Their husbands both worked for a Georgia company. A year ago Wednesday, Gerald Miletello chartered a flight in Louisiana and was stopping in Gulfport to pick up Brewer on their way to South Carolina. They took off from Gulfport but lost contact about than eight minutes into the flight. The plane seemed to have just disappeared in bad weather that was the remnants of Hurricane Patricia.
Wreckage washed up along a 4-mile stretch of Belle Fontaine Beach in Jackson County, and the U.S. Coast Guard found a tail section in shallow water near Round Island.
Cook still lives in Saucier and Pam Miletello in West Monroe, Louisiana, but they talk almost every day. For them, the investigation has never stopped.
Their lives are on hold until something is resolved. That something, Cook said, will be dredging the shallow water on the north side of Round Island. That’s where she believes they will find, buried in mud, the cockpit, the engine and the remains of the men.
Not all wreckage found
Searchers found 80 percent of the wreckage in the days and weeks of searching the Mississippi Sound. The Coast Guard, state Department of Marine Resources and Jackson County Sheriff’s Flotilla were involved.
According to a federal report, the Coast Guard found the tail section floating near Round Island, but when they tried to retrieve it, it was attached to something by cables.
It took three men to pull it up, Cook said the report noted, and when it came loose, oil and gas and a pair of pants floated up.
Cook didn’t get that report until April, when she used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain it. She has had to file Freedom of Information requests 10 times to get information since the crash. By April, independent searchers were involved and they had a fresh view of the situation. During the initial search, it was believed the plane likely hit the water of the Sound, sank and was resting on the bottom.
Mark Michaud, a search diver and retired Slidell police officer, met Cook through a friend and joined the independent search. After looking at the debris and reading that report, he came to believe there was something important attached to that tail section.
He believes the single-engine Lancair, built from a kit and considered experimental, nose-dived into the shallow water near the island at up to 130 mph. That would have buried it deep in the mud, making it difficult to find in the initial search.
Dredging is next step
Now it’s a matter of waiting for clearance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge into the mud. Cook believes the plane’s missing section is about 10 feet into the mud because the state, during the past year, has been dumping dredge spoils near Round Island to build it up.
Shaw Matthews of Matthews Brothers has offered his dredge to her at a discount.
Will they find bodies?
Cook said Jackson County Coroner Vicki Broadus told her if the men were buried in the mud, there’s a chance there will be remains.
While talking with the Sun Herald on Wednesday, Cook stopped to thank the people who have helped her during the past year — Broadus; the sheriff’s crew, which searched longer than asked to; the DMR, whose officers still talk with her; and the Coast Guard, which searched 3,500 square miles of the Sound.
Even when the initial search stopped, others stepped up. She believes Michaud and Matthews and others who came later were God sent.
Why is it so important to find the plane?
‘My soul mate’
Cook sat with her father-in-law, Pettis Brewer, 86, who wears his son Dexter’s work jacket as a reminder.
“He and I have made a pact,” she said. “We’ll bring Dexter back home. I can’t live with the fact that we’re just going to give up and leave him out there.
“We say one more day (without finding his remains) is too long. He is the oldest son, the center of our family, my soul mate. He was the go-to guy for his parents, he made no excuses, he made everyone happy.
“Anyone who is loved should not be forgotten about. Every part of my life is on hold. I don’t go anywhere. I don’t go out of town.
“People say, ‘You have to let go, move on,’ ” Cook said. “I say, ‘You don’t know what you would do until you’ve lived it.’ ”
She lives knowing her husband didn’t want to get on that flight because of the bad weather.
A world upside down
Pam Miletello, 43, has a 9-year-old daughter at home to care for.
She told the Sun Herald that right after the wreck, she urged more investigation and pushed for EquuSearch to come from Texas for an extended search, while Cook was so distraught.
“I was on top of the investigation in the beginning,” Miletello said. “Now I’m falling apart and she’s the one with more details. I’m having trouble even processing information.
“Life has been upside down. It doesn’t feel like it’s real because we haven’t located their bodies yet. The federal red tape is ridiculous. The Corps of Engineers won’t let us dig.”
The women have since learned a lot about the airplane and the failures that may exist in its design. They learned the pilot was not certified for charter flights. They have learned which federal aviation agencies do what, when it comes to investigating a crash and what their strengths and failures are.
But they have also learned how to live differently.
“My heart remains in a million pieces and continued disbelief that he’s actually gone races through my mind on a continuous loop,” Miletello said.
“We’ve never given up,” she said. “We still have to have answers. We want to know what happened.”