Relief flight to Haiti was in trouble at takeoff from Clearwater Airpark

CLEARWATER — Their mission was supposed to last three days, its success measured by how many smiles the payload of clothes, food and toys could bring to an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital still in disarray from the earthquake in January.

It ended seconds after takeoff Sunday in a fiery crash that, somehow, left pilot Ernesto Gonzalez, 48, and passengers Charles Uslander, 54, and Daisy Schneider, 16, alive, and those in the neighborhood where the plane went down unscathed.

Pilar Uslander, who is Uslander's wife and Gonzalez's sister, said her brother's recollection of the final moments are hazy, but what he recalled from his hospital bed at Bayfront Medical Center on Monday reveals a flight that was troubled from the start.

"They took off, and immediately, they started to hear a weird noise. It just went down," Uslander said. "He didn't have time to think."

Uslander said her brother recalled the plane's controls becoming sluggish shortly after leaving the runway of Clearwater Airpark, and then — impact.

"Where the airplane took him was right there where it landed. He had little control," she said.

Investigators say one of the aircraft's wings, where some of the 600 pounds of fuel was stored, sliced through a telephone pole and exploded, sending a massive fireball into the air. The rest of the plane continued on, smashing into the roof of a house, and coming to rest in the home's back yard.

Uslander said that Gonzalez is recovering, but will need to wear a brace for his damaged vertebrae, and her husband, who broke his ribs and bones in his back, will need surgery, but is expected to recover.

"Other than that, everything is perfect," Uslander said.

Schneider, the 16-year-old passenger who escaped serious injury, was in Clearwater visiting an aunt, who was a friend of the Uslander family. Schneider's mother was already in Haiti doing relief work.

"She wanted to go and help in Haiti, and her aunt said to me, if your husband's going there, why don't you give her a ride?" Uslander said.

The ill-fated flight arose from the best of intentions.

Ernesto Barrientos, 27, Pilar Uslander's son, said Monday he spent nearly three months in Haiti earlier this year volunteering with the Church of Scientology's ministry. He returned with stories of suffering that inspired his family to help.

"I told them my experience. I told them there are a bunch of kids whose whole families died," he said. "My uncle got a plane, and they worked out a plan."

Another experience last month also inspired the family.

"We were in Tampa in a hotel, and we saw a lot of Haitians arriving there. All of them were mutilated, some without arms, legs," Uslander said. "My brother and my husband said, 'Let's do something to help.' "

Barrientos said his uncle had been flying for decades and did well enough in the Mexico cotton industry to buy his own plane.

"He was thinking about buying a plane for a few months already," he said. "And he finally did."

• • •

As the wreckage lay burning about 10 a.m. Sunday, three men who had seen the plane sputtering as it left the runway dashed to the scene: Kenny Dufalt, 23, James Alexander, 24, and Benjamin Whitacre, 23.

"I looked, the plane was lying down; the fence, the trees, the toys, they were all on fire," Dufalt said Monday.

Alexander ran to the nearest garden hose and began battling the flames that were licking two homes and several trees. Dufalt found another garden hose and helped a Clearwater police officer battle a fire on the plane's remaining wing for several minutes until firefighters arrived.

Schneider and Gonzalez were able to climb out on their own, Alexander said, but Uslander was unconscious in the front passenger seat.

He said Whitacre grabbed the man across his chest and dragged him from the wreckage.

As the flames persisted, Alexander said, the pilot tried to save his cargo.

"He got himself out. He was in shock, but I couldn't believe it — he went back and was trying to save the stuff inside," Alexander said. "I can understand why he's trying to salvage what he can — he must have felt so bad."

• • •

About noon Monday, a small tractor with a crane was brought into the back yard of Richard Cetroli's home, where the plane came to rest amid his three children's toy cars and dolls.

An airplane salvage team used reciprocating saws to shear off the plane's tail fins and one wing that hadn't entirely been torn off in the crash, then maneuvered the fuselage, which was not much wider or taller than a passenger car, through a side yard. With windows shattered and the engine missing, the remnants of the Piper PA 46-350P were loaded onto flatbeds and hauled away.

The six members of the Cetroli family, including a grandmother and three young children, were all home and eating breakfast at 305 Patricia Ave. when the plane crashed into the house. All escaped uninjured from the burning home.

They have been put up temporarily in a hotel, said Richard Cetroli, and were talking to their insurance company about salvaging their singed and dented home.

"Life happens," Cetroli said outside his house Monday, where he returned to retrieve his mother-in-law's purse.

While the family's dog, Nicko, a Lab-husky mix, was rescued by firefighters, the whereabouts of the family's six young cats, Mandu, Dotty, Cubby, Dutchess, Bear and Mindy, was unknown.

Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or dtao@sptimes.com.

The Piper airplane that crashed in a back yard Sunday is moved Monday to a flatbed trailer. Six family members at 305 Patricia Ave. escaped uninjured. Three on the plane bound for Haiti with relief supplies were injured.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The Piper airplane that crashed in a back yard Sunday is moved Monday to a flatbed trailer. Six family members at 305 Patricia Ave. escaped uninjured. Three on the plane bound for Haiti with relief supplies were injured.

Relief flight to Haiti was in trouble at takeoff from Clearwater Airpark 05/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 17, 2010 11:34pm]

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