Searchers look for missing medical missionary plane

LA GRAN SABANA, Venezuela — More than a month after a medical missionary plane carrying seven passengers disappeared over the searing jungles of La Gran Sabana in southeastern Venezuela, experts in satellite technology have joined the search.

According the Adventist Review, the Cessna 182N plane, piloted by Robert Norton, is believed to have hit turbulent weather Feb. 16 after taking off from the community of Carun en route to Bethel.

The search is being coordinated by Bob Edwards, who served as best man for the pilot.

Norton volunteers for the Adventist Medical Aviation in Venezuela, as does his wife, Neiba Norton, who was also aboard. The other passengers were Gladis Zerpa, an Adventist teacher; a woman accompanying a 14-year-old, and a woman traveling with her young son.

"Our church is really distraught about the news of this tragedy," Rodolfo Escobar, communication director for Venezuela-Antilles Union Mission, told the Adventist Review.

Escobar said church members in Gran Sabana began searching for the missing plane as soon as they heard the news. The National Civil Aviation Institute and several air rescue and non-government organizations immediately began their search, but were forced to stop after 72 hours.

The search resumed Feb. 19 with contracted rescue organizations.

"We are running out of money to pay for the rescue planes but are trusting that God will provide what we need to find our people," the Adventist Review reported. Search operations will continue as long as funds are available, Escobar added.

Escobar told the publication that there were several accounts from villagers in the adjacent distant areas of Carun who heard the plane's engines go silent at some point during the stormy weather.

"We have formed groups to search on the air and several more groups on foot to scour the region where the plane's communication was last heard," Escobar said.

"We have asked our church members to take a moment to pray every hour of the day for those missing, and we are appealing to our members all around the world to join us in this effort asking for God's intervention during this situation."

The Adventist Review said that Norton has more than 20 years of flying experience. For the past eight years, he has been the director and pilot of AMA Venezuela, which is based on the campus of La Gran Sabana Adventist School in Santa Elena de Uairén in the state of Bolivar. His wife, Neiba, a registered nurse, also works by caring for indigenous people in need of medical attention.

The Adventist Medical Aviation is an international project established more than 12 years ago by David Gates. AMA provides emergency medical transportation and evangelistic support to dozens of otherwise inaccessible villages, enabling the inhabitants to have another chance at life.

AMA in Venezuela has served the indigenous communities in Gran Sabana, Bolivar providing medical transportation to nearly 1,000 patients since 2002.