Firefighter John Lann knew as he arrived at the scene that the rescue would be a once-in-a-career experience. About 100 feet above him in the soggy Sunday evening darkness, a small plane was wedged into a high-voltage power line tower with two people stuck inside.
But Lann also was thinking of the injured pilot and passenger stranded amid chilly temperatures onboard an unstable plane shifting in the wind. The specialized unit’s rescue ultimately would go according to plan — but that moment was still hours away.
Firefighters and other personnel on Wednesday recalled the hours of intricate decision-making that preceded a harrowing rescue. With little precedent for such an operation, emergency personnel drove through streets darkened as part of the rescue effort and developed fresh plans to bring the plane’s occupants to safety, all while people across the country watched the developments unfold.
The single-engine Mooney M20J crashed into power lines about 18 miles north of Washington around 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Pilot Patrick Merkle, 66, and passenger Janet Williams, 65, wouldn’t be rescued until after midnight.
For rescuers formulating a plan on the ground Sunday, the most obvious danger was the electricity flowing through the power lines, but they also had to weigh whether the plane would fall or if the tower could collapse. While his plane was buffeted by wind, an injured Merkle told a 911 dispatcher about 20 minutes after the crash that he thought he could climb out.
“You’re going to get electrocuted,” the dispatcher warned, urging Merkle to stay inside the plane.
With the small plane too high for the fire department’s equipment to reach, rescuers considered climbing at least part of the way up the tower and devising a system to extract the two people.
But it was up to Logan McGrane, another fire department lieutenant, to work out a plan.
The first indication of something amiss occurred as power went out in McGrane’s fire station. He texted his battalion chief, who said other fire stations also were suddenly without power. McGrane’s team was then called in to rescue Merkle and Williams, driving 20 minutes through darkened Montgomery Village neighborhoods. In all, 120,000 Pepco customers lost power for hours.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, saying an official cause probably won’t be known for months. Merkle was flying from White Plains, N.Y., to Montgomery County Airpark when the crash occurred about a mile from his destination. In 911 recordings, he told the dispatcher he was searching for the airport in the poor visibility, “then apparently I got down a little lower than I should have.”
NTSB officials have transported the plane from the scene for further investigation.
By the time McGrane arrived Sunday evening, authorities already had established regular phone contact with Merkle and Williams. McGrane said he began to break down different segments of the rescue operation: Determine if the tower is compromised, secure the aircraft to the tower, get access to the plane.
While the fire department’s equipment couldn’t reach the plane, crews considered whether bucket trucks operated by a utility contractor could reach that height, could carry enough weight and had a secure place for attaching a rescue harness.
“We all stood together and we talked about everything you can imagine,” McGrane said.
Until the power company could stop electricity from flowing through the lines and remove the threat of electrocution — even built-up static could be deadly, McGrane said — rescuers’ next steps were limited.
Pete Pedersen, Pepco’s manager for emergency preparedness, said utility crews were dispatched almost immediately after the crash. In those early moments, it wasn’t clear that a plane had crashed into the company’s infrastructure.
“Our operators in our control center could tell that obviously something had happened,” he said. “We didn’t know exactly why, but we could tell that we’d had an interruption on our system.”
Utility crews deenergized the tower and Pedersen headed to the site, where he said he found a “pretty intense environment” as first responders and utility workers coordinated the rescue. More than three dozen utility workers were involved, including some from AUI Power, the contractor that operated the bucket trucks McGrane hoped to use for the rescue.
Getting the bucket trucks from north of Baltimore to the site was its own logistical challenge. Such heavy equipment normally must stop at weigh stations on Interstate 95, but state police allowed the trucks to bypass that requirement. Montgomery County officers provided an escort as the trucks trekked along Route 200 and Interstate 270 into Gaithersburg.
At the scene, the trucks had difficulty moving in the wet soil and had to be towed on two occasions.
Lann and Luke Marlowe, another member of the rescue team who also is a paramedic, entered the metal bucket at the end of the truck’s long boom and began the slow ascent to the plane. Marlowe said he was eager to put his skills to work.
“I wanted to go, you know. That’s what we train for,” he said. “And me being a medic also, they were like, ‘You get to go with them so you can see their statuses.’”
Lann said he knew the power lines had been deenergized, but he ducked as they came within a foot of him. With Merkle and Williams watching from inside the plane, Lann, Marlowe and a power company employee began to fasten the aircraft to the tower.
With it stabilized, they were ready to pull Merkle and Williams to safety.
Marlowe put Williams into a harness first, then got her into the bucket.
“Surprisingly, she seemed okay,” Marlowe said. “I mean, obviously, we can’t see what’s going on internally, but she was able to communicate with me.”
Lann said Merkle tried to follow immediately but had to wait 11 agonizing minutes for rescuers to take Williams to the ground and return. Soon, he also was on his way to a hospital. In an interview Tuesday, Merkle said it was “absolutely a miracle” that he and Williams were alive.
Merkle was released from the hospital Monday. Authorities have said Williams’s condition is improving, although Suburban Hospital officials said Wednesday she remained in intensive care.
“Our Plan A worked,” Marlowe said. “We had a great outcome.”
Marlowe got back to his fire station about 2 a.m. Monday. With several hours left on his shift, he quickly was sent out on another call.
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