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Relief flight to Haiti crashes after takeoff in Clearwater; all survive

CLEARWATER — As the plane was falling from the sky onto the house at 305 Patricia Ave. on Sunday morning, Katherine Swartz was getting down to breakfast inside, unaware that each strip of bacon, each sip of coffee could be her family's last.

Seconds earlier, Dennis Roper, a pilot working on his own plane in a hangar at the nearby Clearwater Airpark, heard an engine strain and saw an aircraft that appeared doomed from the start.

"When he went by, I thought, 'Please, God, no, no, no, no.' ''

The plane vanished into the houses and trees beyond. Then there was a fireball.

Remarkably, no one was killed.

Neither Swartz nor her daughter, son-in-law or three grandchildren having Sunday breakfast about 10 a.m. in the home.

Nor the pilot and two passengers taking off on what officials said was a relief trip to Haiti.

Even though the house caught fire. And even though the plane came apart, landing in two spots in the yard.

"God had his hand on this," said Mary-Lynn Cetroli, who owns the house with her husband, Richard.

In the yard where the plane's fuselage came down, her three kids had been playing minutes before.

The small, single-engine Piper PA 46-350P carried three on board — pilot Ernesto Gonzalez, 48, and passengers Charles Uslander, 54, and Daisy Schneider, 16.

The plane was bound for Haiti, airport officials said, loaded with relief supplies.

"I could tell by the way the airplane was flying that he was sinking tail low and struggling to maintain altitude, nonetheless climb," Roper said as he watched it go by at the airpark. "I said to myself, 'He's done.' "

According to Clearwater police, the plane, just gassed up with 600 pounds of fuel, struck two trees and a telephone pole in the suburban neighborhood a block north of Drew Street. The plane then ripped across the home of the Cetrolis and came to rest minus its wings and front end in the family's back yard.

After the impact, Richard Cetroli, Swartz's son-in-law, saw something in his back yard that did not belong: a fuselage resting next to his kids' toys. And he heard a sound: a female screaming.

"Get me out of here!" Cetroli recalled her yelling.

He ran to the plane, pulled open the door and yanked her to safety.

Three young men from the neighborhood arrived a moment later and pulled the two others from the plane.

According to police, none of the plane's occupants suffered life-threatening injuries, though Uslander was taken to Bayfront Medical Center. Uslander was listed in critical condition Sunday night. He, the other passenger and the pilot could not be reached for comment.

The plane's front ended up in the house's side yard.

Roper said the telephone pole snapped one of the plane's wings, where the fuel is stored, putting distance between the passengers and the plane's explosion.

"They were very, very lucky," Roper said. "That fireball was 60, 70 feet in the air."

• • •

Before emergency officials could respond to the many 911 calls, neighbors began dousing the flames with garden hoses.

The cause of the crash is not yet determined, officials said, though residents who helped rescue the passengers guessed the plane was carrying too much weight.

Tammie Lakins was at her home on nearby Harding Street when she heard the plane.

"You could hear the plane coming over top of us. You could hear it sputtering," Lakins said. "I was in my living room and, once you heard that sputtering and that major boom, you just sat in your chair and waited for it to hit the house."

Swartz said it sounded like "a big freeway pileup at 90 mph."

Investigators cordoned off the home Sunday afternoon, and the Red Cross helped the family — including twins Ashlyn and Breanna, 9, and Ryne, 7 — get temporary lodging.

The National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene investigating.

According to police, both passengers were Clearwater residents, and Gonzalez is a Mexican citizen who was staying with a relative during his visit.

A Federal Aviation Administration database says the plane was manufactured in 2007 and originally registered in Midland, Texas. This month, its registration was canceled and the plane was taken to Mexico.

Gonzalez owns the plane, and he flew in from Mexico on Friday while volunteering his services, said Roper, who is also the chairman of the airpark's advisory board.

• • •

The airpark opened in 1939 near Hercules Avenue and Drew Street, when the surrounding area was mostly orange groves.

As more homes and businesses have been built in north Clearwater, the number of flights and accidents has increased.

In one 18-month period in the past decade, four planes came down over Clearwater and five people aboard died.

The FAA has estimated there are 50,000 flights a year from the airpark.

Times correspondent Terri Bryce Reeves and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.


Piper Malibu Mirage

Capacity: Seating for pilot and five passengers.

Weight: Empty equipped, 3,080 pounds. Maximum takeoff, 4,300 pounds.

Range: At normal cruising speed and optimum altitude, 1,055 nautical miles.


Relief flight to Haiti crashes after takeoff in Clearwater; all survive 05/16/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 17, 2010 11:16am]
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