Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a quote that misspelled Gemmell. This version has been corrected.
It was a scene straight from a suburban nightmare: A plane encounters trouble while trying to land at a small airport, stutters, stalls and crashes into a house at the end of a quiet street.
Marie Gemmell, 36, her infant son, Devon, and 3-year-old son, Cole, huddled in a windowless second-floor bathroom last year in a futile attempt to escape the flames after the crash on Drop Forge Lane. Pilot Michael Rosenberg, 66, and passengers David Hartman, 52, and Chijioke Ogbuka, 31, also were killed.
Those who live near the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg are pondering the future of the airport, which was built more than half a century ago when this stretch of the county was largely undeveloped.
Even as the accident remains under investigation, the crash has caused soul-searching in this corner of Gaithersburg, which is largely defined by its proximity to the airport. On Wednesday night, about 100 residents gathered at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for a public forum on the airport to voice their fear, vent their frustration and express their hope for safety changes at the airport.
County officials have said that they are waiting for federal officials to complete their investigation before offering any recommendations for the airport.
“We have to let them lead,” County Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), who represents Montgomery Village, said of federal investigators.
Many speakers were like Jennifer Etzel, 28, who has lived in the Hadley Farms development not far from the airport for about three years. At first, she said, she wasn’t aware that the airport was so close to her and her neighbors’ homes. Eventually the airport was a source of pride for her family and so much a part of the fabric of the community, she said, that one of her daughter’s first words was “airplane.”
But the accident, she said, “rattled us to the core.”
The Dec. 8 plane crash that killed six people was not the first at Montgomery County Airpark, but it stoked the fears of the surrounding community like no other because three of the dead were killed in their home.
The airpark opened in 1959, intended to relieve aviation congestion at Washington National Airport. At the time, the county’s population was 340,928. Since then, the county census count has grown to 1,030,447, and developments have sprung up to envelope the airport.
Between 1970 and 1990, nearby Gaithersburg grew almost fivefold, and the city’s population has reached 65,690.
A 1984 article in The Washington Post was headlined “Some critics say it’s an accident just waiting to happen,” in reference to the airpark. It quoted one man who lived nearby: “It’s inevitable that a plane will fall out of the sky.”
Since 1983, there have been 29 airplane crashes at or near the airpark, fewer than one a year. Only four resulted in injuries to the pilot or passengers. In three of them — in 1990, 1985 and 1983 — people on board died.
At the meeting, resident Scott Dyer, 36, said he was concerned for his family. He noted that some people ask why residents chose to move to an area near the airport, which had been there for many years before their arrival.
“While it was here first, it’s a very different airport than when it first opened,” he said. “The county has the responsibility for the safety and quiet enjoyment of those houses and families. It’s taken years to have a community meeting to acknowledge there are concerns only because there was finally a loss of life.”
Dyer, who lives in the area with his wife, Joy, and their 5-year-old son, said residents have prepared 16 recommendations for the airport — including noise abatement and new safety guidelines for runway departures and “touch-and-go landings,” when planes touch the runway momentarily before quickly lifting off again.
Lucy Seifert has lived near the airport for 30 years.
“I don’t mind small airplanes,” she said. “The jets are too large, and they’re getting bigger and bigger. It’s unbelievable.”
Dorothy Doyle-Wandell said she drives past the site of the accident daily on her way to work.
“There isn’t a single day that I have not thought of the Gemmell family and said a prayer for them driving by that home,” she said. “My two young children , who are old enough now to be aware of the accident, they don’t know about it. Because I chose, up to this point, to shield them from it.
“I want to be able to look my children in the eyes and tell them about not only the tragedy but what the county has done in response to grow from it, to correct the situation, to make this a safer place,” she said. “We’re not there yet.”