David Ventura, his family and a roommate were sleeping in their quiet Herndon apartment Thursday around midnight, when what sounded like a bomb jolted the father of two awake.
Ventura said he sprang from his bed to find a surreal scene: A small plane had crash-landed in his living room with its nose resting on the floor next to the fireplace. A battery sat on a sectional couch, and a yawning hole in the ceiling opened to the night sky.
As Ventura stood in shock, he said the pilot and a passenger clambered out of the cockpit of the single-engine Cessna 177, and an awkward moment ensued.
“The pilot asked if we were okay,” Ventura said. “I told him that we were all good.”
But just barely. The plane had missed his son Markus’s bed in an adjoining room by just a few feet and a roommate’s room. Ventura said his 6-year-old boy was oblivious to the destruction that occurred around him — he slept through the crash.
Ventura said he shook the boy awake and that his family and the plane’s passengers fled the third-story Astoria Circle apartment, fearing the Cessna might explode or spark a fire.
From the street, the full scope of the wreck was on stunning display. The plane had punched through the roof of the building and kept going. The tail and a tip of a wing protruded from a ragged hole. Curtains fluttered in the breeze outside Ventura’s living room window, and siding was bent at odd angles.
The pilot, William Larson, 61, of Vienna, was the only person who suffered serious injuries in the crash and was taken to the hospital, the Virginia State Police said. The injuries are not considered life-threatening. The passenger, Alejandro Tache of Orlando, was treated at the scene for minor injuries.
Police said the plane had taken off from Philadelphia Regional Airport and was supposed to land at Manassas Regional Airport. Larson and Tache worked for Aerial Photographers of Vienna and were taking infrared shots when electrical problems caused the engine to cut out. Authorities did not say exactly what they were photographing, but such images have a number of commercial uses, from finding moisture on flat roofs to counting populations of animals.
The pilot contacted Dulles Airport about re-routing to a new destination, police said.
“The pilot told air traffic he was low on fuel and planned to land on the Dulles Toll Road,” said Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration. “And that was pretty much the last communication we had with them.”
The Web site LiveATC.net posted an audio recording of what it said were the pilot’s calls to the Dulles Airport air traffic control tower. FAA officials could not confirm the recording’s authenticity.
“I think we’re not going to make the airport, we’re heading for a road,” the pilot tells the tower in the final moments.
“DC Photo calling that in,” the tower responds.
“We’re not talking anymore,” the pilot goes on.
“Understand,” the tower says.
Nothing is heard after that.
Stephanie Beres, who lives in a building across the street from Ventura’s in the Dulles Greene complex, said she was preparing to walk her dog shortly after midnight when she saw the Cessna dropping out of the sky nose first. She said it slammed into Ventura’s building with a boom like a “firetruck hitting a firetruck.” She said a wing snapped.
Sarah Maydwell, who also lives in Dulles Greene, said she saw the plane moving up and down erratically and teetering from side to side before it crashed. She said it appeared the pilot pulled up at the last second to try to avoid the impact.
“It looked like a video,” Maydwell said. “It didn’t feel real.”
Beres, who said she is a nurse and a pilot, sprinted across the street in her bare feet to help. She said she threw open the door to Ventura’s apartment and was shocked by the chaos.
“Debris and dust were everywhere,” Beres said. “Birds were flying in and out of the apartment. It felt like an explosion had happened.”
Beres said she retreated and knocked on people’s doors to get them out of the building. Other neighbors in Ventura’s building described the sound and feel of the crash as a large trash bin being dropped or an earthquake. Some ran to the street screaming.
Virginia State Police arrived at 12:17 a.m. and began evacuating residents of Ventura’s building. Red Cross officials said they have helped find temporary shelter for four families, including 11 children.
A large crane was brought in to remove the plane from the building early Friday morning. A loop was fitted around the plane’s tail, and it was slowly lifted through the hole in the roof. The wings were pinned back, and the cockpit was crumpled from the force of the impact. The plane was trucked out of the neighborhood on a flatbed.
The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash. The plane will be taken to Delaware during the investigation, said Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the NTSB. He said a preliminary report would be available in about two weeks.
There have been no charges filed against the pilot, and “no criminal intent” was suspected, said Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police. The pilot could not be reached for comment, and the passenger, Tache, declined to speak to The Washington Post.
An Alejandro Tache is listed as an interpreter of infrared photography for a North Carolina-based company called Stockton Infrared Thermographic Services. A biography on the company’s Web site says he has extensive experience as a combat pilot. The company declined to comment.
Ventura said he was unsure how much the repairs would cost or who would pay for them. He said he works at Sears as a delivery man and immigrated from Honduras five years ago. For the moment, his family is living in a hotel room.
On Friday afternoon, Ventura once again stood in his living room, which was strewn with splintered two-by-fours and yellow insulation.
Debris was piled on a child’s toy car, and pieces of the plane’s windshield were on his couch. But a few feet from the crash site, delicate crystal glasses remained perched on a shelf. His son’s room was also untouched, as if he had just gotten up. A matter of feet made all the difference.
Ventura, whose girlfriend and 2-year-old son also were in the apartment, was still trying to comprehend that. “Man,” he said shaking his head. “Thank God. We could have all died.”
Maggie Fazeli Fard, Mary Pat Flaherty, Jennifer Jenkins and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.