The two couples set out in a private plane from Neenah, Wis., at noon Friday, headed for a festive weekend in Riverdale to celebrate the wedding of Charlie Andreas, a hometown childhood friend now stationed at Andrews Air Force Base.
Even though no one had heard from the travelers by suppertime Friday, the wedding party remained calm. The pilot, Clark Anderson Jr. of Neenah, was an experienced and diligent flyer, they said; bad weather had probably forced him to land and wait for clear skies.
But at precisely that moment, Anderson was fighting for his life, caught in a blinding blanket of clouds in the northwest Maryland mountains. At 7 p.m., as Anderson tried to pilot his single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza to clear skies, the plane plunged into the Blue Ridge Mountains near Hagerstown.
Anderson and two passengers, Donald and Barbara Ann Abbey, were killed instantly. Vicki Anderson, the pilot's wife, survived.
The news reached the wedding party about three hours later, just as the family and friends of Andreas and his bride-to-be, Donna Colesanti, were leaving the Riverdale home of Frank Colesanti, the bride's father.
"The phone rang and the man said he was Clark Anderson. We thought, 'Oh great, they've arrived,'" Frank Colesanti recalled yesterday. But the caller was Clark Anderson Sr., the pilot's father, and the news transformed the joyous wedding party into a group of mourners. the bride's father said. "We can pray for them and give them our bereavements, but life has to go on." About 200 guests are in town for the ceremony at St. Bernard's Catholic Church, he said.
Vicki Anderson, 30, was listed in fair condition yesterday at Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown, suffering from second and third degree burns on her arms and legs, face lacerations and shock.
She has little recollection of how she escaped from her seat at the rear of the burning plane, police said. She made her way through the woods to a farm house about three-fourths of a mile away. Incoherent and hysterical, she managed to tell a farmer, "The plane is on fire; there are four of us," a state police spokesman said.
Donald Abbey, 40, was Vicki Anderson's brother, according to relatives. The Abbeys, who had four children, planned to attend the wedding and then to vacation in the Washington area, Colesanti said.
Andreas' parents, also of Neenah, had at one time planned to fly down with the Andersons and Abbeys, but changed their minds last week when they heard predictions of bad weekend weather between Wisconsin and Washington.
They weren't worried about a crash, family members said, but they did fear that they would be delayed in mid-flight by clouds or rainstorms. So they decided to drive, knowing they could be in Riverdale in 17 hours regardless of the weather.
Charles Andreas Sr. and Clark Anderson Jr., together with two other partners, were owners of the single-engine plane. A salesman for Snap-On Tool, Anderson flew often as a hobby. "He had flown all over. He was a very good and very conscientious pilot," a relative said.
Anderson and Andreas grew up as neighbors in Neenah, where Andreas planned to resettle after the wedding. Andreas, a sergeant at Andrews Air Force Base, is completing four years of Air Force service.