"He was happy to see us. Just kind of grabbed my arm and gave me a thumbs up," Peer said.
But the next passenger Peer tried to save, Hawaii Health Director Loretta Fuddy, was not responsive and he couldn't find a pulse.
"It was not a good feeling," he said.
Fuddy was the sole fatality in the Wednesday afternoon crash. Remarkably, the eight others on board suffered only minor injuries.
In the final moments of her life, Fuddy clung to the hand of her deputy, Keith Yamamoto, while floating in the water. Fuddy, who gained notoriety in 2011 for her role in making President Barack Obama's birth certificate public, held hands with Yamamoto as he tried to help her relax, said the Rev. Patrick Killilea, who consoled Yamamoto after the ordeal.
"He recounted how he said he helped Loretta into her life jacket and he held her hand for some time," the priest said. "They were all floating together and she let go and there was no response from her."
The crash occurred when the single engine of the 2002 Cessna Grand Caravan failed soon after it took off from Molokai and made its turn toward Honolulu, said Richard Schuman, owner of Makani Kai Air, operator of the plane.
Schuman said the pilot did his best to get the plane down safely and keep the passengers together in the water. Asked how they survived, he responded: "Will."
"There's only one engine on that plane, and when it quits on you, you just have to deal with it in that moment," he said.
It was unclear Thursday how Fuddy, 65, was killed. Molokai General Hospital Vice President Randy Lite said Fuddy's body will remain at the hospital until an autopsy is conducted.
Schuman said he did not yet know why the engine failed because he has not been able to see the plane. The aircraft had no previous problems, he said.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said investigators planned to speak with the pilot, whose name was not released, and some passengers about the crash.
However, the location of the wreckage, combined with wind and wave conditions, likely means it won't be recovered, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie said Fuddy was loved and respected. About 100 Health Department employees lined up to pay their respects to Fuddy's family members who attended a gathering in her memory at the department's parking lot Thursday.
Immediately after the crash, Fuddy's body was taken to a care home at Kalaupapa, where Killilea, the pastor of Kalaupapa's St. Francis Church, said he made the sign of the cross on her forehead as she lay on a gurney surrounded by nurses and the distraught Yamamoto.