Plane narrowly misses St. Petersburg condo towers, crashes in park

The four people aboard survive as a Piper Cherokee hits a St. Petersburg park.
Published September 15 2014
Updated September 16 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — A group of mothers sat on the grass of Vinoy Park on Monday morning where 10 minutes later the wing of a plane would rest.

A woman from North Carolina fed peanuts to squirrels about 10:30 as the plane barely missed the Vinoy condominium towers. It dropped lower and lower, until it hung even with the trees.

Justin DeStoppelaire sat on a bench with his back to the plane, which many said dropped into the park in near silence. DeStoppelaire, 41, held a coffee. It was his day off, and the best way to spend it, he'd thought, was to sit in the park and listen to an audio book called Instinct: The Power to Release Your Inborn Drive.

The mothers had moved from beneath the tree. As they stood 50 feet away, one of the mother's eyes went wide. Without a word to anyone she grabbed her child and began to run.

The tree at the north edge of the park ripped off the left wing of the single-engine Piper Cherokee plane. The noise sounded like a Dumpster being violently emptied and dropped. The plane spun and threw parts across the park. It crashed to the grass, bounced and stopped with its nose toward the water.

Half a mile away, at the North Shore Aquatic Center, a group of about a dozen fire and rescue workers with the St. Petersburg dive team heard the noise. Lt. Henry Simmons was in his swimsuit, as was rescue worker George Harris. Along with three others, they got in a vehicle and drove toward where the plane sat mangled, and where its four passengers had been strapped inside.

The plane had departed Tallahassee Regional Airport at 8:14 a.m. and was scheduled to arrive at Albert Whitted Airport. It was registered to a company from Gretna, La., called Advanced Technology Training LLC. Onboard were Grant Jordan, 57, the pilot; Aloysius Ryan, 52; Eamonn Harnell, 48, and an unidentified 17-year-old girl. All are residents of Ireland.

The plane's door swung open. Two people walked out.

DeStoppelaire saw the pilot sitting limp with his head back. He called 911.

The woman feeding squirrels began to shake and after a moment ran to her nearby hotel. Her husband heard the sirens and walked to the window, initially fearing something had happened to his wife.

When the rescue workers arrived they noticed no smell of fuel. They turned their focus to the pilot, who was unconscious.

They put Jordan on a stretcher and as he woke he could not tell paramedics his name, where he'd come from, or why he'd been flying to St. Petersburg.

Jordan and Ryan were taken to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg in critical but stable condition. The other two passengers suffered minor injuries.

DeStoppelaire stood across the street recounting his story to reporters, coffee still in hand.

The woman from North Carolina, Sheri Jarvie, 50, stood shaking behind the police tape beside her husband. She had come back to check on the condition of the pilot and passengers, and to see if anyone in the park had been hurt. Only those in the plane were injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

The firefighters who first responded from the pool drove back to Fire Station 11. Just a few weeks before they had jumped into the water near the airport to try to rescue another downed pilot. By the time they reached him, he had died.

"Any time you walk away from a plane crash," Harris said in front of an ambulance at the station, "that's pretty unusual."

Christie Bruner, 34, who led the mothers at Baby Boot Camp that morning, went home and was soon flooded with texts asking if she was hurt. She posted to Facebook that she was fine.

She sat at her kitchen table with her 4-month-old girl in front of her. She said the mothers always love the park because it offers their babies so many distractions.

"We try to have the kids entertained while we work out," she said, "so they like to watch the planes go by overhead."

Times staff writers Andrew Meacham, Frank Pastor and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Weston Phippen can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321. Follow @westonphippen.

   
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