Orange object prompts search plane in case of missing Lafayette sailor

A search plane departed from an island off the coast of New Zealand on Sunday afternoon in search of what rescuers believe to be an orange life raft similar to the one from a boat that disappeared in the South Pacific in early June with a Lafayette teen aboard.

“We are tasking our aircraft to search this area for what we think is the life raft of the Niña,” said Ralph Baird, who’s leading the Texas Equusearch mission in search of the seven-member crew aboard the vessel, including Danielle Wright, a 19-year-old University of Louisiana at Lafayette student.

Volunteers prompted Sunday’s target-specific search after coming across an Aug. 3 satellite image of an orange, man-made object floating in the Tasman Sea in the South Pacific Ocean near the Niña’s last confirmed location, Baird said.

“(The object) has all the characteristics of a life raft, similar to the one that’s on the Niña, which is a Revere eight-man life raft,” Baird said.

A volunteer first noticed the image Friday while pouring over images taken by a privately owned satellite. But because of bad weather and the time it took to re-prioritize the search, the plane didn’t take off until about 2:30 p.m. Sunday, which is Monday morning in New Zealand, Baird said.

The plane, which departed from Norfolk Island, is searching a roughly 150-by-100-mile area where the object appeared in the satellite image, Baird said.

“If it was in another area somewhere, we probably would not have put a high priority to it,” Baird said. “But because it’s in the position that it’s in, and it fits the scenario of someone leaving the Niña and going into the life raft … this is exactly in a high-probability area where it would’ve drifted.”

No one has heard from the 70-foot schooner’s crew since radio transmissions during two back-to-back storms June 4 and June 5.

“We’re still continuing to look for an intact Niña,” Baird said.

The Niña set sail May 29 from Opua, New Zealand, bound for New Castle, Australia, with Niña owner David Dyche III, 58, his wife, Rosemary, and their 17-year-old son David. Also on board are Evi Nemeth, 71, of Colorado; Kyle Jackson, 27, of Bassett, Neb.; Matthew Wootten, 35, of Kent, England; and Wright.

Wright’s parents, who recently requested financial assistance from the public to fund the costly search mission, could not be reached for comment Sunday afternoon.

Baird said the U.S. government has not cooperated with search efforts.

He said concerned citizens should contact their local representatives to seek additional financial support for the mission.

“We need money,” Baird said.