BROOKSVILLE — One of the owners of a Brooksville campground was killed Thursday morning when the small plane he was piloting crashed as it was taking off from a Polk County airport.
James "Jim" Trefz, 45, co-owner of Belle Parc campground on Ancient Trail, was killed in the crash of a single-engine plane that had just taken off around 9:30 a.m. from Winter Haven Municipal Airport.
Witnesses said the plane appeared to have lost power and was banking to the right before crashing into a tree, the Polk County Sheriff's Office said.
Two deputies went to the single-engine plane on the north side of U.S. 92 W, just east of Auburndale and found Trefz outside the craft. The deputies tried to keep Trefz alive with an automated external defibrillator and CPR until EMS personnel arrived, but without success.
George Azize, 47, of Mulberry, who was trapped in the plane's passenger seat, was extricated, then airlifted to a local hospital where he was listed in critical condition.
Improbably, Trefz's white, mixed-breed terrier, Zulu, also survived the crash. He was found around 11 a.m. walking around near the scene of the crash. A friend of the family at the scene was returning Zulu to Trefz's family.
Witness Juan Jackson told The Ledger newspaper in Lakeland that he was driving on U.S. 92 as he watched the plane struggle to stay aloft.
"The plane was really low and out of control. I thought it was going to hit my truck," Jackson said.
After the crash, he said he went to help the victims.
"We didn't know someone else was in the plane until we heard screams from the cockpit," he said.
Trefz got his private pilot's certificate in January 2000, public records show. Eddie McGuire, a member of Winter Haven's Airport Committee, told The Ledger that Trefz had 400 hours of flight time and 50 hours in the plane that crashed.
The plane is owned by John Amundsen, who operates Tailwheels Etc., a flight school at the airport. Amundsen could not be reached for comment.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration will investigate the plane crash.
Among Hernando County residents, Trefz gained attention shortly after he bought the 8.3-acre campground from Laine and Elaine Brayko in February 2008. Originally named Brentwood Lake Camping, the park has been in operation since the 1940s and was once a gathering point for longtime seasonal visitors, some of whom kept their aging travel trailers on site for months at a time.
Trefz aimed to create an upscale RV vacation resort, and increased rates to help pay for improvements. He also prohibited guests from staying longer than six months at the park and banned vehicles older than 10 years.
"As nice a location as it is, there is a trailer park feel to it," Trefz told the St. Petersburg Times after the sale. "People with nice RVs would come through and see all the shabby RVs laying around and turn right around and leave. We felt we had to make some changes."
The changes drew protests from a number of the snowbird campers and nearby residents, but Trefz pushed forward with his plan to turn Belle Parc into a vacation destination.
In recent months, Trefz slowly reduced his role and stake in the ownership group, said Belle Parc general manager Don Henderson. Trefz moved out of the park about five months ago and was working on another business venture.
"I hadn't even seen him in a couple of months," Henderson said. "He was setting something else up."
Henderson described Trefz as a man drawn to outdoor sports in particular and adventure in general. He said Trefz enjoyed skiing, snowboarding and riding on motorcycles, among other things.
"He was wild on everything," Henderson said. His death "is not so surprising but I'm still flabbergasted. He was a very likeable, very nice guy."
Henderson said Trefz is survived by two young children, a son by his former wife and a daughter by his current girlfriend.
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6120.