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Small plane crashes on McMullen-Booth Road in North Pinellas; one dead, two girls injured (w/video)

It was 40 degrees in Chicago on Friday evening when they squeezed into the red and white single-engine airplane, their minds on a place much warmer.

Jeffrey Bronken and his daughter, Katie, of Round Lake, Ill., had made the same trip to Clearwater a year ago; "#lovehim," she wrote of her dad on Instagram. The girl also posted photos with two friends who came along: smoothies in the sand, tie-dye shirts, a stop at the pier.

This year, Katie invited her best friend from their softball team, Keyana Linbo. The girls, both 15, had exchanged excited Twitter messages all week.

"So ready for this weekend with my babe," Keyana said just after midnight Wednesday.

"Last minute quick trips are honestly so common in the Bronken household," Katie responded 17 minutes later.

"T-24 hours = paradise," Keyana wrote Thursday afternoon.

They never made it.

For reasons that remain a mystery, their plane crashed at 4 a.m. Saturday on McMullen-Booth Road in Safety Harbor. Bronken, 53, died at the scene. Both girls were seriously injured and taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

In his nearby apartment, Dennis Martin had been watching highlights of NCAA tournament basketball games when, suddenly, the power went out.

Then, a blast. It wasn't a car crash, he knew that. The noise sounded more like a bomb exploding, the kind he recalled from his days in the Army.

Martin, 68, stepped out onto the lanai of his apartment and, in the pitch darkness, saw sparks and flames. He snatched a flashlight and ran into the street.

Fires shaped like inner tubes flashed across the pavement. In the median, he spotted it.

"Oh my God," he yelled to a neighbor. "There's a plane."

It was on its nose, tail pointed to the night sky. Bronken's body lay on the road at the foot of the mangled cockpit.

A horde of law enforcement cruisers, their sirens blaring, descended on the scene. Martin watched as emergency personnel loaded one of the girls onto a stretcher and into an ambulance.

At 12:20 a.m., Katie had tweeted that their plane was in Nashville, just more than 600 miles from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. The aircraft crashed just 8 miles due north of its planned destination.

The PA-28, which was built in 1980, settled atop the ground about a half-mile south of Enterprise Road. It had clipped and dislodged a 2-inch-thick power line strung between a pair of towers, shutting off electricity to the area.

Later, about 100 feet north of the wreckage, the section of frayed, sagging line hung directly over a chunk of the plane.

One witness, Bill Tregillus, described the sound of the impact as "like a large guitar string snapping."

It's unclear what caused the crash or whether Bronken was trying to land on the street. According to preliminary information from the Federal Aviation Administration, he had radioed to air traffic controllers that he was having fuel problems.

Officials with both the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board were leading the investigation, which left the area closed to traffic much of the day.

A man who answered the phone at the Bronkens' home in Round Lake, about 40 miles north of Chicago, declined to comment but said that the pilot's wife had already left for Florida.

St. Joseph's Hospital declined late Saturday to provide an update on the girls' conditions.

Records show the plane is registered to Illinois-based Inman Glass, also called Glass Man Inc., which Bronken owned.

This tragedy is not the first to befall the family. Katie's sister, Christine, was killed in a snowmobiling accident in December 2009 at the age of 20.

Over the past two years, Katie's social media pages have been flecked with photos of moments she and her father shared.

As a toddler in her father's arms: "Always been a daddy's girl"; at a Chicago Bulls game, his arm around her: "My dad is the best!"; in the city, a frame taken in black and white: "Chicago with the best dad in the world!"

And there was the plane.

It was a passion they shared. She called it "#myplane," taking photos of it on the ground and in the air, in snowstorms and with her hands on the wheel.

And in one, dated exactly a year ago Saturday, she is sitting in the cockpit next to her father. A low light is splashed on their faces, and both are smiling wide.

"You can be the pilot," she wrote, "and I'll be your co-pilot."

Times correspondent Terri Bryce Reeves contributed to this report, which contains information from the Daily Herald. Reach John Woodrow Cox at jcox@tampabay.com or follow him on twitter @JohnWoodrowCox.

Scene of crash

View video from the plane crash at Links in today's Times at tampabay.com.

Small plane crashes on McMullen-Booth Road in North Pinellas; one dead, two girls injured (w/video) 03/22/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2014 1:46am]
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