Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

Pilot dies when small plane crashes into water near Albert Whitted Airport

ST. PETERSBURG — The pilot of a small plane died when he crashed into the water south of Albert Whitted Airport moments after takeoff Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue divers helped extract the pilot, 70-year-old Donald Thomasson, who was still strapped into the cockpit seat when they reached him.

Witnesses reported the crash of the single-seat aircraft to authorities just before 3 p.m. after it nose-dived less than a mile from the airport near downtown St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg police said the plane, a Piper PA-23, belonged to Aerial Banners Incorporated, a company that tows advertisement signs and is based at the airport. Company representatives from Fort Lauderdale traveled to the scene Sunday.

According to witnesses who talked to police, the pilot had just picked up a banner and was beginning to climb when they heard a popping noise before the plane crashed nose down into the water.

The plane landed about 75 yards south of the seawall at Albert Whitted. Rescuers extracted the pilot, who was dead, and transported his body to the U.S. Coast Guard station near the airport.

Several witnesses told the Tampa Bay Times that, from where they were gathered in Lassing Park south of downtown, they could see the plane take off towing a banner. It wasn't in the air long, they said.

As the small craft climbed, Gene Alston, 44, said the pilot released the banner it was dragging before he could even read what it said. Seconds later, the plane nose-dived, turned slightly and crashed into the waters below, not far from the runway.

"It went so fast," said Lenora Jankovic, 50, who was with Alston when the plane went down.

Amanda Clark, 18, said the plane sank within seconds, so fast that she and her friends couldn't get their phones out in time to take photos.

After the bay waters had swallowed the craft, the group said they heard a bang, like the plane had exploded underwater.

Nearby, Carstell Holloway, 48, said it "sounded just like a boom, pow! I thought it was a boat hitting some rocks."

Holloway said the plane sounded like it lost power after taking off.

"Usually you can hear that plane make a racket when it takes off," he said. "This time it went quiet and then it crashed."

St. Petersburg resident Gary Smith was casting for redfish a couple of hundred yards off of the park when he saw the plane take flight. He thought it took an "abnormally steep" climb when it left the runway. He didn't think much of it and turned back to fishing. Seconds later, he heard the plane crash.

"It sounded like someone putting a cigarette out in the water," said Smith, shirtless and standing chest deep in Tampa Bay.

Several boats converged within seconds on the area where the plane went down, witnesses said, as if they were trying to help rescue the pilot. Then a loud siren sounded from the marina and rescue boats began responding.

From their spot in the park, those gathered said they could see fire trucks and ambulances on the runway. Alston said at least a dozen boats floated around the area where the plane crashed.

A Coast Guard boat arrived on scene, police said, about six minutes after the crash, followed by a St. Petersburg police boat.

Though the Coast Guard station sits right beside the airport, they did not have a dive team to send to the scene, Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashley Johnson said, so Fire Rescue divers responded instead.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Pinellas Sheriff's Office crews also were on scene to assist in the rescue effort.

The plane was still submerged in about 25 feet of water late Sunday, police said, and likely will be retrieved sometime today.

Federal Aviation Administration officials were on scene to investigate.

"It's a real shame," Smith, the fisherman, said. "Such a beautiful day for such a thing to happen. Real shame."

Times staff writers Graham Brink and Laura C. Morel contributed to this report.

   
Comments
Deputy, another driver injured when car strikes patrol vehicle

Deputy, another driver injured when car strikes patrol vehicle

LARGO — A Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy and another driver were injured when a sports car hit a sheriff’s sport-utility vehicle on Thursday evening, according to the Sheriff’s Office.Both were expected to survive.The crash took place just after 6 ...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Police announce two more arrests in St. Pete strip club shooting

Police announce two more arrests in St. Pete strip club shooting

ST. PETERSBURG — Two more arrests were made recently in connection with the April 2 shooting death of a man outside an unlicensed adult entertainment venue on Fourth Street S, police said.Rodriguez Green, 24, of Largo and Darius Trennell Collins, 23,...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Hernando High student accused of threatening to shoot up school

Hernando High student accused of threatening to shoot up school

BROOKSVILLE — A 17-year-old Hernando High School student was arrested Wednesday for threatening to shoot people at the school, according to the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.The student was serving a suspension at the time of the incident, deputie...
Updated: 7 hours ago

Details emerge in fiery crash that killed prominent Moffitt doctor

TEMPLE TERRACE — Investigators say an orange Dodge Charger was moving about 90 mph when it ran a red light and broadsided a prominent doctor’s car last month on Fowler Avenue. The impact caused Dr. Charles Canaan Williams’ Acura to...
Updated: 7 hours ago
St. Pete police: Man who stole car with baby inside arrested

St. Pete police: Man who stole car with baby inside arrested

ST. PETERSBURG — A man accused of stealing a car with a baby inside earlier this week was arrested Thursday morning when officers spotted him in another stolen car, according to St. Petersburg police.Rashad Webb, 19, was arrested at about 2 a.m. afte...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Long wait at Wingstop ends in brawl, hot oil and second degree burns

Long wait at Wingstop ends in brawl, hot oil and second degree burns

TAMPA — A customer visited Wingstop on Sunday night to pick up his order. What happened next was off-menu:Robert Williams said he suffered second-degree burns on his back and legs after a Wingstop employee threw hot oil on him during a scuffle.Willia...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Orlando man sought in Interstate 4 carjackings captured in Tampa

Orlando man sought in Interstate 4 carjackings captured in Tampa

TAMPA — A 43-year-old Orlando man who was being sought in a string of carjackings along Interstate 4 was captured on Thursday, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.Majar L. Jones, 43, was considered armed and dangerous and the subjec...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Florida has one of the highest rates of fatal hit-and-run crashes, study finds

Florida has one of the highest rates of fatal hit-and-run crashes, study finds

Florida is among the top three states with the highest per capita rates of fatal hit-and-run crashes, a new study published on Thursday by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found.From 2006 to 2016, the organization examined hit-and-run crashes in...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Florida man pours gasoline and sets girlfriend on fire, police say

Florida man pours gasoline and sets girlfriend on fire, police say

GAINESVILLE — A 55-year-old Florida man is accused of pouring gasoline on his girlfriend and setting her on fire.Gainesville police arrest report says Roosevelt Kitchen was charged with attempted murder. He was being held Thursday on a $1 million bon...
Published: 04/26/18
FHP identifies driver in crash that killed

FHP identifies driver in crash that killed "smiling" teen

TRINITY — Friends said what they’ll remember the most about Lillia Morris is that she was always smiling.The 17-year-old Mitchell High School junior was killed Tuesday when a sport-utility vehicle ran a red light on State Road 54 and slammed into the...
Published: 04/26/18