TAMPA — As investigators combed through tiny bits of plane wreckage scattered across a Virginia field Monday, a spokeswoman with Fun Bike Center Motorsports in Lakeland confirmed that its chief executive officer, Daniel J. Dorsch and his wife, Cyndie, perished in the Sunday crash.
Daniel Dorsch, 56, of Tampa, was the former chief executive of the Checkers Drive-In Restaurant chain.
Also assumed to have died was Cyndie Dorsch's 23-year-old dance instructor, Stepan Matkovski of Safety Harbor, who flew with the couple to a New York dance contest where he and Mrs. Dorsch competed as partners, said Tina Waisman, one of Matkovski's students.
Waisman and her husband took in the young immigrant from Moldova two years ago. He was a clean-cut, dedicated teacher with a passion for dance and just two weeks away from getting his green card, and from seeing his wife for the first time in two years.
Waisman said he'd traveled on the Dorsch plane before, for competitions across the country.
"He was so excited," Waisman said. "He was going to see the Statue of Liberty."
Matkovski left for New York with the Dorsches on Tuesday, Waisman said. They were supposed to return Friday, but Matkovski called, saying the weather was bad. On Monday, he missed a dance class.
The flight plan listed four people aboard a Pilatus PC-12/45 turboprop plane registered to Dorsch's company, Nicholas, Elliott & Jordan LLC, when it departed from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey at 8:25 a.m. Sunday.
It should have landed at Tampa's Vandenberg Airport just under four hours later, said Tim Monville, a senior air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
At a news conference Monday, Monville did not identify anyone involved in the crash. Investigators were still attempting to determine the number of dead.
After takeoff, Monville said, the pilot contacted several air traffic control facilities, reporting an issue with a "panel," which could have referred to a number of problems, from exterior panels to instruments within the plane.
The plane was flying at 32,000 feet when it was lost from radar and radio contact, Monville said. Witnesses reported seeing the plane either flying from north to south or south to east before it crashed about 10 a.m. on a farm owned by Virginia Tech in Rockbridge County.
The plane went into a "steep vertical descent," fragmented on impact, then caught fire, Monville said.
It left a crater, scattering pieces 300 yards away. Apart from the engine and propellers, he said, the largest remnant is the size of a garbage can.
Although the plane carried no black box recorder, it had instruments that store data.
But because the plane broke into such small pieces, Monville said, investigators can only hope a microchip from scattered server boards might provide some clues about the crash.
Monville said that prior to the crash, the pilot deviated around bad weather. Investigators plan to examine the plane's maintenance records and the pilot's experience and health records.
The FAA lists Dorsch as a licensed pilot, according to online records.
Dorsch began his career as a 15-year-old cook at Kentucky Fried Chicken and quickly earned his place as a partner, Fun Bike spokeswoman Kim Francis said.
He grew his franchise fortune to 1,000 locations, including KFC, Taco Bell, Papa John's Pizza and various motor sports companies. He served as chief executive officer of Checkers from 1999 to 2003.
"Mr. Dorsch was a strong leader, a respected entrepreneur and a successful CEO who cared deeply about his employees and his businesses," Francis said in a statement. "He and Cyndie Dorsch are survived by their three sons: Jordan, Elliott and Nicholas.
"They will be greatly missed."
The family asks that letters of condolence be sent to Fun Bike Center Motorsports, 1845 E Memorial Blvd., Lakeland, FL 33801.
Times staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press was included.