A pilot and a passenger were rescued from a small plane that had crashed into a power line tower and power lines in Maryland after an hours-long ordeal that saw power cut to nearly 100,000 homes and businesses, led to school cancellations and plunged rescuers into a complex effort to safely remove the people aboard.
Both the pilot and passenger were pulled from the plane and onto large buckets attached to towering cranes shortly after midnight.
Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said the pilot and passenger suffered orthopedic injuries, trauma and had “hypothermia issues.”
“Both people assisted us in their movement from the aircraft,” he said.
Before they were extricated, Goldstein said, technicians had to conduct “bonding and grounding” operations to make the tower safe. Doing so took about an hour, and was finished about 11:30 p.m. Sunday. The technicians and rescuers then secured the airplane to the tower.
The plane was removed about 3 a.m. Monday, hours after power was restored at 1:34 a.m.
The first victim, a woman, was pulled from the plane at 12:25 a.m. Residents who’d spent hours watching the incident play out clapped as she was lowered down in a bucket. The second occupant, a man, came down about 11 minutes later.
Before the rescue, Montgomery County Public Schools canceled classes for Monday, as did Montgomery College. In addition, the crash in the Gaithersburg area curtailed operations on the Metro Red Line and at least two hospitals, officials said.
Maryland State Police identified the pilot as Patrick Merkle, 65, of Washington and his passenger as Janet Williams, 66, of Louisiana.
A D.C. pilot with the same name and who would be the same age survived at least one crash before. On Aug. 4, 1992, a single-engine plane piloted by Patrick Merkle struck the side of a mountain in Farmington Canyon, Utah, according to an account in the Salt Lake Tribune. Part of the wings and tail section were ripped off as the plane flew through pine trees, the newspaper account said, and the fuselage crashed into the side of the mountain.
The Sunday evening crash occurred at a Pepco transmission line near Rothbury Drive and Goshen Road in the Gaithersburg/Montgomery Village area, according to utility and rescue officials. The plane became entangled in high-voltage power lines in the Montgomery Village-Gaithersburg area about 5:40 p.m.
On Monday, Pepco officials said crews continued to assess damage to power equipment and the tower and make any necessary repairs.
Goldstein said that immediately after the crash, the occupants were in direct contact with Montgomery County’s 911 center. That communication eventually shifted to rescue workers speaking directly with the occupants. The rescuers did so intermittently, Goldstein said, to preserve the occupants’ cellphone batteries.
Photographs showed the plane seemingly suspended or entangled in or near cabling and the latticework of a tower that supports the high-voltage transmission lines. It was not clear how firmly the plane was being held aloft. Goldstein said the precarious position of the airplane meant it needed to be secured to the tower with straps and chains.
“Any movement, any accidental movement, could make the circumstance worse,” he said about 9 p.m. Sunday, adding, “We want to make the aircraft stable to the tower before we try to remove the occupants.”
The terrifying oddity of the incident drew hundreds of onlookers to a shopping center at the intersection of Goshen Road and Rothbury Drive. They milled about and gazed up at the white airplane stuck in the tower, at times barely visible through the nighttime fog.
“We’re concerned. We’re praying for everyone involved,” said Marianne Linn, who’d come to the parking lot with her husband Jim.
Gift Okoli and her husband, Thierry Mbieuleu, were at their home in Germantown on Sunday evening when they began reading accounts of the suspended airplane. They headed over to see it, making their way to a shopping center parking lot where hundreds had gathered.
Okoli told Mbieuleu she hoped that rescue workers could somehow attach ropes to the airplane even before their rescue operation began. The couple was nervous for the occupants of the plane.
“I’m worried about them, very, very much,” Okoli said, looking up. “I’m so worried the plane is going to fall.”
The cause of the crash was not immediately known. It was misty and rainy in the Washington area Sunday, and it was unclear if weather played a part.
The airplane, described by the Federal Aviation Administration in a preliminary account as a single-engine Mooney M20J, hit the high-tension lines northwest of the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg about 5:40 p.m. It had left from Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., the FAA said.
Goldstein said power lines sagged to the ground after the crash.
One estimate indicated that the plane may have hit lines as high as 10 stories up. Photographs appeared to show the airplane at about that height. The wings and fuselage appeared essentially intact.
Gillian Brockell and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.