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A preliminary federal report indicates the craft seemed to have trouble gaining altitude.

The flight began with a rocky start.

After taxiing across the Springerville Municipal Airport, the small Piper aircraft carrying the Ulrichs seemed to cover too much runway during takeoff. Then the plane began rocking side to side as it lifted off ground, rising and dipping in waves.

What happened next shocked a family, local friends and a community across the country: Jeffrey, 50, who was a pilot, Ronni, 47, Alexa, 15, and Carlie Ulrich, 5, all of Wesley Chapel, died after their plane crashed into Round Valley High School in Eagar, Ariz.

Federal investigators said the official cause for the June 11 crash could be months away. But a preliminary report, released this month, depicts a plane that never seemed to stabilize before nosediving into the school and exploding.

Compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board, the report features statements from three unidentified witnesses.

One man said the plane appeared to have trouble gaining altitude, climbing and sinking about three or four times after takeoff.

Another man who was repairing one of the school's walk-in freezers heard the plane overhead and ducked for cover. It seemed to be flying too low, he said, though its engine didn't sputter and seemed to be running strong.

A woman driving nearby on Main Street heard the plane and saw it lose height quickly as it flew toward the school.

The plane banked counterclockwise before crashing into the side of the building, less than a mile from where it had left the runway. An early claim that the plane circled the school before diving was debunked, said crash investigator Joshua Cawthra. The plane was in the air about one to two minutes.

Friends of Alexa's at Wiregrass Ranch High School and people who lived near the crash site organized separate vigils across the country to remember the family, who had flown out west to visit the Grand Canyon. Strangers in Arizona who had only seen pictures of the Ulrichs began planning a permanent memorial to the family and a scholarship in Alexa's name.

In response, relatives of the Ulrichs have begun researching how they can return the favor to the community that saw much of its high school building destroyed. Ronni's sister Karyl Partridge, who lives in Boynton Beach, said their family is planning to send money to the Round Valley communities of Eagar and Springerville.

"They're pouring their love and prayers out to us," Partridge said. "We want to send our support out to them."

Contact Drew Harwell at or (727) 869-6244.