EVERGLADES CITY — The host of a popular fishing TV show was killed Friday afternoon when his single-engine plane crashed near an Everglades City airstrip.
Jose Wejebe, who hosted Spanish Fly, a saltwater fishing show on the Outdoor Channel and formerly on ESPN, died when his kit plane plummeted into a field near the runway shortly after takeoff from Everglades Airpark. Wejebe is the registered owner of the plane, according to FAA records.
His ex-wife, Lynne Calero, confirmed that Wejebe died in the crash.
“It’s awful,” Calero said Friday. “He was very close to his family. It’s a real waste.”
Wejebe, 54, was alone on the Comp Air 8, a kit plane that can seat six adults and two children, aviation officials said. They did not know where Wejebe’s plane was headed at the time of the crash, but said it was departing to the north.
The plane fell from above the 2,400-foot runway around 4:45 p.m., right after takeoff, officials said. It landed in a barren field adjacent to the public airport’s runway on privately owned land. The crash scene was not visible from the airport building.
“There was a significant post-crash fire,” said Peter Knudson, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Smoke from the crash could be seen for at least two miles, the distance to the Marathon gas station where John Famiaglietti was working Friday.
“I saw the smoke, and at first I thought it was a house on fire,” said Famiaglietti, who later learned of Wejebe’s death from his boss.
No injuries were reported for others on the ground, but at least one witness saw the plane crash, Knudson said. Airport staff was gone for the day, and does not have to be present for pilots to use the runway, Collier County Airports Director Chris Curry said.
Wejebe was known for his extensive travels chasing big fish, which took him from the Gulf of Mexico to the Galapagos.
Born in Cuba, he fled to Miami with his family after Fidel Castro’s revolution, according to his website. It was in Florida that he learned to fish alongside his father at 8 years old.
As a teen, Wejebe bought his first boat with the money he made working at a gas station, his official online biography states. He ultimately became a fishing guide in South Florida, from Biscayne Bay to Everglades City. Wejebe was living in the Florida Keys at the time of his death.
In 1995, he made it into the mainstream when the first episode of Spanish Fly aired on ESPN-2, following him on fishing expeditions. A second show, Vida del Mar, followed on ESPN in 2001.
Spanish Fly was currently airing on the Outdoor Channel, and Wejebe recently had a special on National Geographic Wild.
His only child, Kristin Wejebe, 28, recently filmed a father-daughter fishing show with him.
“It was very important to her to be able to share that,” said Calero, who is Kristin’s mother. “She was so proud.”
Wejebe had a strong following in the fishing community. One of his social networking pages has 66,000 followers. Members of online fishing forums were lamenting his death minutes after it was posted on the Daily News’ website.
The cause of the crash could take months to determine, but the weather was relatively clear, Knudson said. An NTSB investigator is expected at the scene this morning and will spend several days there.
The airpark is on 29 acres on the southwest end of Everglades City. It sees about 5,000 flights a year, Curry said.
While Southwest Florida has seen several plane crashes in recent years, few have been fatal. Of four crashes in 2008, a total of 12 pilots and passengers survived in three separate crashes.
In the fourth plane crash in December of 2008, 74-year-old Benjamin Arthur Simpson of Naples was killed when his Cessna 172 crashed off the coast of Goodland near Cape Romano.