Small plane crash cleaves Florida home in half; pilot dies
Saturday, April 18, 2009
OAKLAND PARK, Fla. -- A small plane sputtered and dove into a house shortly after taking off from a local airport Friday morning, slicing the home down the middle into two charred pieces. The pilot was killed.
The twin-engine Cessna 421 crashed around 11:20 a.m., and the house burst into flames. The owner's nephew barely escaped the catastrophe, leaving just before the aircraft hit to visit his aunt.
"For now, it's a bit difficult to explain how I feel," said Oscar Nolasco, 52, who has lived in the home for nearly 20 years. "Everything is gone."
The house was about two miles from the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, where the plane has just taken off. The pilot, Cecil A. Murray, 80, of Tamarac, Fla., did not survive, said Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti. There were no passengers aboard the plane.
The smell of fuel hung in the air hours after the crash, and the shell of the aircraft was sandwiched between two walls of the beige house. The home's driveway was black, but its white mailbox was still standing.
When the plane began to fail, Rick Cunningham heard a "spitting and sputtering" while he was painting a house down the street. Then, he saw the plane coming in sideways, and it nose-dived into the ground, he said.
Cunningham, 52, ran over to the house and knocked down the bedroom windows to see if there was anyone inside, but after a few minutes he had to leave. "The heat was just too intense," he said.
The plane was headed to Fernandina Beach just outside Jacksonville, where airport officials expected it to land around 1 p.m. The pilot, who had logged about 23,000 hours of flying since 1985, was traveling there to sell it, Lamberti said.
But after takeoff, something went wrong. Shortly after it got into the air, Murray reported trouble to the tower, and the tower cleared the plane to turn around and land, said Chaz Adams, an airport spokesman. It never made it.
"I said, 'Oh my God, that could have been my house.' It was that close," said Bill Slugg, who lives across the street.
"I was on the phone, the phone went dead and there was this loud bang and a lot of black smoke emanating from the area," said Dorothy O'Brien, 83, who lives nearby. "Black, black smoke for at least ten minutes."
Though the fire was quickly controlled, firefighters were trying isolate fuel in the debris, said Oakland Park Fire-Rescue chief Donald Widing. A utility company also cut power in the area to about 1,645 customers because they were not able to get in to assess damage to power lines.
Nolasco said he and his nephew, Alex Martines, are now staying in a hotel and getting assistance from the Red Cross. When authorities called him to tell him about the crash, Nolasco said he thought it was a joke.
Nolasco said his employer has reduced his hours, and it's not unusal for him to be home on a weekday. He was needed at the factory Friday, though, and left for work hours before the crash.
"I have to thank God I have my life," he said.
"The house was a total loss," said Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Mike Jachles. "The plane went right into the center of the house."
The crash was at least the fifth involving the airport, which caters to small planes and jets, in the last 12 years.
In 2007, a twin-engine Beechcraft reached about 150 feet after takeoff before the pilot reported he could not maintain altitude and declared a mayday. He crashed onto Interstate 95, but survived.
A DC-3 cargo plane crashed shortly after takeoff into a residential street near the airport in 2005. The pilot, co-pilot and a passenger all survived. The pilot said at the time they chose the street because it was quiet and wide, and has an abundance of tall palm trees he could run into to slow the plane's speed.
In 2004, a Piper Cherokee crashed into the roof of an auto body shop shortly after takeoff, killing two people on the plane and critically injuring a third. And in 1997, a new pilot died when he crashed his Beechcraft Skipper 77 into a tree near the airport just after takeoff.
National Transportation Safety Board records show that Cessna 421s have been involved in 12 fatal accidents since 2004.