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‘It’s miraculous.’ Three survive fiery plane crash in Tampa

The pilot declared an emergency and attempted to land at Tampa International Airport but didn’t make it, officials say.
A scene of a small plane crash on North Ward Street in Tampa, on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.
A scene of a small plane crash on North Ward Street in Tampa, on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 18, 2020
Updated Dec. 19, 2020

TAMPA — A small plane lost engine power Friday and attempted to make an emergency landing at Tampa International Airport — but didn’t make it.

Instead the Piper Cherokee 140 crashed in an industrial area about a mile from the airport, west of Jefferson High School.

The single prop plane knocked down a power pole and power lines as it came down. The fiery wreckage came to rest at the corner of W Nassau Street and N Ward Street about 1:24 p.m.

Smoke filled the air over the Westshore area and Tampa police said it received a flood of 911 calls reporting the crash.

Three men were seriously injured in the crash, officials said. The plane was engulfed in flames when a Tampa police officer arrived soon after the crash. The three men onboard had already made it out of the plane and were taken to the hospital.

But no one on the ground was injured and no buildings were damaged, either.

“It’s amazing. It’s miraculous,” said Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny. “Any other adjectives you want to use to describe what happened here.”

Danay Pérez, left, listens to Jorge Lugo, center, talk about the small plane that made a fiery crash in the Westshore area on Friday next to coworker Miguel Montero, right. Three men survived the crash, and Lugo said he dragged a badly injured survive away from the burning wreckage.
Danay Pérez, left, listens to Jorge Lugo, center, talk about the small plane that made a fiery crash in the Westshore area on Friday next to coworker Miguel Montero, right. Three men survived the crash, and Lugo said he dragged a badly injured survive away from the burning wreckage. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Jorge Lugo said he heard a loud bang and then lost power at his workplace, Sonic Transportation and Logistics at 5002 W Nassau St.

He ran outside to see a ball of fire and three injured men who had already made it out of the wreckage.

“When you see people on fire, your instincts really just kick in,” the 38-year-old said. “You don’t even think.”

Lugo said he jumped over a line of bushes and ran over to help. The men were all in shock and suffered from burns. One appeared to be badly injured, his pants on fire and unable to use his legs. Lugo said he dragged him a safe distance away from the burning plane.

Some bystanders thought they were far enough away, but Lugo didn’t, fearing the plane could explode.

The Piper Cherokee’s airport of origin and its destination were not known. Earlier that day the plane stopped at Zephyrhills Municipal Airport to refuel, a city official said, then took off again.

When the plane lost engine power, officials said the pilot radioed the Tampa International control tower and declared an emergency. Airport fire crews started preparing for a possible crash landing. But the plane ended up going down about a mile short of the airport.

A small plane crashed Friday in an industrial area in the Westshore area. Three men were hospitalized. The plane was attempted to land at Tampa International Airport when officials said it lost engine power and crashed, coming to a rest near the corner of W Nassau Street and N Ward Street.
A small plane crashed Friday in an industrial area in the Westshore area. Three men were hospitalized. The plane was attempted to land at Tampa International Airport when officials said it lost engine power and crashed, coming to a rest near the corner of W Nassau Street and N Ward Street. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
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Lugo said he talked to one of the survivors to make sure he didn’t pass out before medical help arrived. He said the man told him that there was a student pilot onboard and also said the engine failed while they were in the air.

Officials did not release the names of the three men aboard the plane. The men are ages 58, 24 and 23. All suffered second- to third-degree burns, officials said, and so far two have been diagnosed with broken bones.

The men were reported to be in critical but stable condition at Tampa General Hospital.

Utility crews spent the rest of Friday repairing power lines to restore power to the buildings affected by the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration could not be reached for comment.

A small plane crashed Friday in an industrial area in the Westshore area. Three men were hospitalized. The plane was attempted to land at Tampa International Airport when officials said it lost engine power and crashed, coming to a rest near the corner of W Nassau Street and N Ward Street.
A small plane crashed Friday in an industrial area in the Westshore area. Three men were hospitalized. The plane was attempted to land at Tampa International Airport when officials said it lost engine power and crashed, coming to a rest near the corner of W Nassau Street and N Ward Street. [ Tampa Fire Rescue ]