Four top officials of Portsmouth, Va., and their pilot were killed yesterday when a twin-engine plane crashed into the family room of an empty house in Columbia, Md. while attempting to land at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Maryland State Police identified the victims as city manager G. Robert House, 51; assistant city manager Chesley H. McGinnis; city engineer Ralph Hester, 40; assistant city engineer Thomas Gooden, 47; and Joseph Weth, a Portsmouth police officer and pilot of the six-seater aircraft. Police said no one on the ground was injured.
A five-member team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board headed by chairman James Burnett was dispatched to the scene to determine what caused the accident, which occurred shortly before 11 a.m.
Safety Board spokesman Bob Buckhorn said the aircraft left Hampton Roads Airport at Chesapeake about 9:40 a.m., and was receiving instructions from the tower for an approach to BWI Runway 10 when it "suddenly disappeared off the radar screen." The officials were en route to Annapolis to confer with city officials there.
Maryland State Police Cpl. Douglas Slacum said the weather at the time of the crash was overcast and misty, but safety board investigators said they do not know what role the weather may have played in the crash.
Police said they received the first report of the accident from a Columbia resident who said she saw the aircraft knife into the two-story home located at 7001 Deep Cup Court in Columbia, a planned community midway between Washington and Baltimore. The split-level home, owned by John R. Rossini, is about six miles west of the runway where the plane was attempting to land.
"One of my neighbors called me at my office and said, 'John, I don't want to get you alarmed but there's a plane sitting in your house,' " said Rossini, 41, a mathematician at Johns Hopkins University.
"I'm still in disbelief," said Rossini, whose wife, a teacher in Columbia and two teen-age sons were at school at the time of the crash. "I'm just so glad no one was home and no one on the ground was hurt." Police said another house was slightly damaged when the plane crashed into Rossini's house.
Martin F. Malarkey III, an Internal Revenue Service agent and a neighbor of the Rossinis, said he heard a roar and looked out his window to see the plane crashing into his neighbors' house.
The Rossinis' house, said Malarkey, "seemed to explode from the inside" as the plane, which was upside down, smashed into the first floor. "Pieces of the inside of the house and the aluminium siding and part of the wing were across the lawn. The smell of fuel was just overwhelming . . . Most of the house had fallen down around the plane."
Rossini, who lived in his $100,000 home for nearly five years, last night toured what was left of it with the building inspectors. "There's just a huge amount of fuel and foam everywhere. It's unreal."
Firefighters were afraid the plane might explode, so they sprayed foam in the house before rescue crews and investigators could reach the wreckage. Police said a crane was used to lift the second floor of the colonial house before the wreckage was lifted out and placed aboard a flatbed truck. It was taken to the Butler Aviation Terminal at BWI Airport, where investigators have set up temporary headquarters.
In Portsmouth, city officials held emergency meetings and appointed city attorney Steven Lieberman acting city manager.
"This is just a tremendous shock," said Lieberman, who said the Portsmouth officials were scheduled to fly to BWI and drive to Annapolis to meet with city officials about how the Maryland capital had developed its waterfront.
"This is just unprecedented in this city," said Portsmouth Mayor Julian Johansen. "We are shocked and saddened."
House, a native of Durham, N.C., had served as city manager of several other cites in Tidewater, among them Chesapeake, Norfolk and Suffolk before his appointment as Portsmouth city manager in March 1981.Picture 1, Rescue crews, firefighters and police gather at the Columbia, Md., two-story home where a plane carrying city officials from Portsmouth, Va., crashed yesterday morning. Five persons died in the crash, By Vanessa Barnes Hillian--The Washington Post; Picture 2, G. Robert House...Portsmouth city manager is victim; Picture 3, Tail assembly of twin-engine aircraft protrudes from the Columbia, Md., home into which it crashed upside-down yesterday while attempting a landing at Baltimore airport; Picture 4, John Rossini, owner of home where plane crashed, shows the wreckage to his son James, who had just come home from school. Photos by Vanessa Barnes Hillian--The Washington Post