A rescue effort for a plane that disappeared over Lake Erie Thursday night – carrying six people who reportedly had attended an NBA game – is now a recovery operation, Cleveland officials said Saturday morning.

The U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search around 7:30 p.m. Friday after covering more than 128 square miles of Lake Erie.

“The decision to suspend a search is never easy,” Capt. Michael Mullen, chief of response for the Coast Guard 9th District, said in a statement. “I extend my deepest condolences to the family and friends of those who lost loved ones during this tragedy.”

The city of Cleveland took over a recovery operation Saturday morning, city officials said at a news conference.

“We’ve gone from the rescue into recovery and there’s a process,” Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson told reporters Saturday, adding that he extended his condolences to the friends and family of those on board.

Officials said the Cleveland police and fire departments, the Coast Guard and the local port authority would assist in the search for the plane.

“Our goal right now is to extract the aircraft from the water and bring it to closure,” Burke Lakefront Airport commissioner Khalid Bahhur told reporters Saturday.

Bahhur said the city had contracted with local, private divers and would meet with them Saturday to plot out a strategy to find the plane.

A timetable was unknown at this point, officials added.

“It’s going to be on a day-to-day basis and we’re not going to risk other people’s lives,” Bahhur said. “It’s never easy. It’s extremely difficult. It’s our aviation family so we take it very seriously and it’s affected everybody.”

The Cessna Citation 525, bound for Ohio State University Airport, disappeared from radar “shortly after takeoff” late Thursday night, the Coast Guard said in a news release. The flight had departed from Burke Lakefront Airport, which is located on the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland.

Three adults and three children were on the Cessna when went it went missing, Mullen told reporters at a Friday morning news conference. Authorities were working to notify their family members.

John W. Fleming told the Columbus Dispatch that his son was flying the plane, and that the group was in Cleveland for the Cavaliers-Celtics game. NBC News also reported that those aboard the aircraft were returning from the Cavaliers game at Quicken Loans Arena.

Mullen was asked at the news conference if the passengers were in Cleveland to attend the Cavs game, and replied: “I’m not aware of that.”

Both U.S. and Canadian authorities searched Lake Erie after the flight went missing, but neither had not located any debris, according to Mullen. It was not immediately clear what caused the aircraft’s disappearance.

“I’m always hopeful, whenever we’re still conducting a search out there,” Mullen said. “I truly believe that we’re out there and we’re going to find something. Having done search-and-rescue cases myself, as a pilot, every time I go out, I’m looking to find the needle in the haystack, and I’m hopeful that I’ll do that. So yes, we are very hopeful, and we’ll be very hopeful up until the point where we have to turn the search off and we switch over to assisting with recovery, if necessary.”

By the time the Coast Guard announced it would suspend its efforts Friday night, the search had spanned more than 20 hours.

The Columbus Dispatch on Friday reported that the plane was flown by John T. Fleming, who is the chief executive of an Ohio-based beverage distributor.

“They think they may have crashed into Lake Erie,” his father told the Dispatch. John W. Fleming called his son “an experienced pilot.”

A statement from Joseph R. McHenry, executive vice president of the Superior Beverage Group, also confirmed that John T. Fleming, Fleming’s wife, Sue, their sons, and “two close friends” were “involved in an aircraft accident near Cleveland Thursday night.”

“While search and rescue operations are underway, we are focusing our efforts on supporting the families involved,” said the statement, posted to the company’s site. “We are working closely with the proper authorities conducting the investigation. We appreciate the efforts of the first responders on the scene.”


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