A Plant City businessman died and two others are missing after their impromptu plane trip over Cedar Key ended in a crash shortly after midnight Saturday.
The Cessna 206 turned into an orange glow on the water as friends and relatives watched in horror from the airport, said Cedar Key police Chief Virgil Sandlin, whose agency interviewed the witnesses.
On Saturday afternoon, divers recovered the body of John Borchard, 43, from the Gulf of Mexico about a mile from the Cedar Key airport. Police did not release the names of the other crash victims, including a Tampa Bay area pilot, because they were still missing late Saturday.
Borchard, who lived in Tampa, was a strawberry broker who sold produce from farmers to sellers, said Eileen Griffin, his attorney and longtime friend. Borchard leaves behind children in Arizona from a previous marriage and children from his current marriage in Tampa.
"I love this guy," said Griffin, who sobbed when she heard of his death. "John is someone who I truly, truly will miss. He is a gentleman and a very good businessman and a great father to his children. He's a gentleman's gentleman."
On Friday, the single engine aircraft took off from a Plant City airport with a pilot, Borchard and two Tampa Bay area couples aboard, according to Sandlin. They were headed to the quaint Gulf Coast town of Cedar Key, north of Citrus County, on a trip meant as a wedding present for one of the couples, who were newlyweds.
They landed that evening at Cedar Key's one-runway airport. Two sisters, vacationing from Illinois and Iowa, were there watching the sunset. The Tampa group asked the women for a ride downtown, and the eight people went to Frog's Landing, a popular restaurant.
Later that night, the sisters suggested the group go back to the airport. There, one sister wanted to take a quick plane ride to see the city at night. The pilot took them up as a return favor to the sisters for driving them downtown.
"All it was was a courtesy fly," Sandlin said.
The pilot, Borchard and one sister boarded the plane and took off about 12:30 a.m. The rest went back to the restaurant, where one of the couples had accidentally left their camera. The flight took about 15 minutes.
When they returned to the airport, they saw the blinking lights of the plane coming toward them from the west. Then, they saw an orange glow like a fireball on the water.
"They kept waiting for the plane to come in and it never did," said Sandlin, who did not release the survivors' names.
Surrounded by water, the Cedar Key airport is known to be a difficult airstrip even for experienced pilots. At night, bright stars reflect on the gulf, making it hard for pilots to tell where water ends and sky begins. The weather was clear.
In 2005, a New York man died in a Cessna crash near the airport. At the time, records showed 47 crashes claiming 25 lives had been investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board in the area.
The Cedar Key airport runs on visual flight rules, which don't require a registered flight plan or for pilots to check in with the airport. An official at the Plant City Airport declined to comment but said Borchard and his family have been based at the airport for years.
Borchard was raised in California, where his family owns a farm, according to court records. In 1991, he met his future wife, Kristine, while attending Northern Arizona University.
The Borchards moved to Florida, where John started a strawberry brokerage business, records show. Borchard owns a few properties in east Hillsborough County, including a McIntosh Road farm that wasn't being cultivated on Saturday.
The couple had two children, now 15 and 12, before their 1997 divorce. The children live with their mother in Arizona, records show.
John Borchard more recently lived in a gated townhouse on Harbour Island. Several people with worried faces gathered at his home Saturday awaiting more information from authorities. They declined to comment.
Times staff writer Andrew Meacham and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374.