Cuban Plane Wasn't Hijacked; Just Another Bid for Freedom

By Bob Melvin | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - US Coast Guard officials want to interview survivors of a downed Cuban plane amid evidence that Tuesday's crash in the Gulf of Mexico was part of a desperate attempt by those on board to gain freedom in the United States.

The pilot of the Soviet-built plane was not hijacked, as he originally reported, but instead was trying to seek political asylum, according to one of his colleagues.

Pilot Lenin Iglesias Hernandez downed the plane 60 miles west of Havana. One person was killed. Nine survivors were plucked from the sea by a Panamanian freighter.

Juan Jose Galiano Cabrera, the man who had been scheduled to serve as the flight engineer, says Hernandez persuaded him to stay behind at a landing strip, then flew to another strip, picked up his family and friends, and headed north to the US, at one point sending a radio message that he had been hijacked.

A 36-year-old unidentified Cuban male, one of the survivors, was airlifted Tuesday night by a US Coast Guard helicopter from the Panamanian ship and transported to a hospital in Key West. According to the Coast Guard, the man suffered a fractured skull, and neck and back fractures.

Meanwhile, Congressmen Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) urged President Clinton Wednesday to grant asylum to the Cuban refugees.

"Recently, your Administration acknowledged that the Clinton-Castro Migration Accord has not been complied with by the Castro dictatorship," the joint letter to Clinton said.

"Mr. President, until freedom is restored in Cuba, the Cuban people will continue leaving and the US will face an ongoing crisis. The solution is freedom, not appeasement (for the Castro regime). Please grant asylum to the freedom-seeking refugees who risked their lives on the airplane that crashed into the sea yesterday," they said.

Note:'s Managing Editor, David Thibault, contributed to this story.