2 dead, 1 critical in Shirley plane crash

The pilot and one of two passengers died after a small plane crashed on a residential street in Shirley. Residents tell their stories of the event that shook their neighborhood. Videojournalists: Stringer News, Jessica Rotkiewicz and Carl Corry (Aug. 19, 2012)

The pilot and a passenger of a single-engine plane that crashed Sunday into a residential neighborhood in Shirley have died, authorities said, and another passenger is critically injured.

Witnesses said the two passengers emerged from the plane appearing dazed and severely burned before they were taken to the hospital. Erik Unhjem, 61, and Jane Unhjem, 60, of upstate Goshen, were taken to Stony Brook University Hospital. Erik Unhjem remained in critical condition Sunday night. His wife died at about 7:30 p.m., hospital spokesman Greg Filiano said..

No one on the ground was injured in the crash, and witnesses say the plane landed in the middle of the street, barely missing nearby homes.

Awilda Ruiz, 47, of Crestwood Drive in Shirley, said the plane landed close to her house and she helped the two passengers -- as soon as they emerged from the wrecked plane, grabbing scissors to cut off the woman's burning shirt. Ruiz said the pair appeared to be disoriented and in shock as she and neighbors put cold towels on their burned arms and feet.

She stayed with them until rescuers arrived, she said.

"I was assuring them that they were OK," Ruiz said.

Jacqueline Resto, 24, of Helene Avenue, said her family tried to pull the pilot out of the wreckage, but they were forced back by the flames. Resto said they used their garden hose to try and put out the fire.

The male pilot's body remained trapped in the plane on Sunday afternoon, as investigators tried to figure out what caused the crash onto Helene Avenue, a mile from Brookhaven Calabro Airport.

Suffolk police said they received numerous 911 calls at 11:55 a.m. reporting that a plane crashed on Helene Avenue in Shirley. The pilot was pronounced dead at the scene by a physician assistant from the Suffolk County medical examiner's office. People did not identify him pending notification of his family.

Brookhaven Town spokesman Jack Krieger said that the single-engine plane took off from Calabro at 11:48 a.m. Sunday and crashed minutes later. The plane was registered in Florida, Krieger said, and it was not clear if the pilot was from Long Island.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko said the plane had been at the Shirley airport for about a month.

"This is a traumatic situation for the neighborhood," Lesko said. "The neighborhood is in a state of shock."

The National Transportation Safety Board plans to investigate the accident, public affairs officer Keith Holloway said.

Lt. Jack Fitzpatrick, commander of the Suffolk Police Homicide Squad, said the National Transportation Safety Board would be the lead agency. It is expected to be on the scene Monday morning.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the aircraft type was a Socata TB10, registered to an Orlando, Fla., man and the tail number will be released later. There were no injuries to people on the ground, and damage was reported to trees, one automobile and a large trash receptacle, the FAA said.

Joanne Meadows, who also lives on Crestwood Drive in Shirley, was sitting on her back deck talking on the phone with her daughter when the plane flew low over her yard, striking a large oak tree and crashing into the street. "The tree saved it from crashing into houses," said Meadows, 50. "The plane was all mangled in with the tree."

Emergency responders came to their house looking for pieces of the plane, she said. "We heard them say something about the tail of the plane," Meadows said.

Debra Sapienza, 53, another Crestwood Drive resident, said the events unfolded as she watched from her kitchen. "I knew it was going to crash," she said. "How it avoided the house is a miracle.

"I could see the plane going past my yard," she said. "I got up, ran to the back door and saw the crash."

Jeff Litwin, who lives on Helene Avenue, said the plane crashed about 500 feet from his house. "I was in my house and I thought it was thundering . . . when I heard the explosion," Litwin said.

He said he spoke to a neighbor who had just pulled into her driveway when the plane crashed in the street, just feet from her car.

"She just pulled in her driveway and watched the plane come down right next to her," Litwin said. "She's pretty shaken up."

He said the plane took down a tree and hit a large trash bin before coming to rest on Helene Avenue.

Wayne Wachter, 43, of North Shirley, said he heard the plane failing and then crash.

"We heard the plane sputtering, and it basically started coming down," Wachter said. "I saw a fireball from about 10 houses away." He said he saw two people taken away by ambulance.

Christine Bernard, who lives on Colin Drive near the crash site, said she felt the rumble of the crash while making her morning coffee and thought a truck had an accident. She heard people screaming to call 911. She and her neighbor drove to the scene.

"There were two people on the lawn the paramedics were helping, and there is a yellow tarp over the plane, it's upside down," Bernard said.

"It knocked over a tree . . . and a Dumpster somebody must have had for renovations, which must have slowed it down. It's amazing. It landed right in the middle of the street," she said,

Theresa Nelson, a pilot and dispatcher with Mid Island Air Service at Brookhaven Airport, said the plane crashed north of the airfield, and the airport closed just after noon.

With Tania Lopez and Carl Corry

This is a developing news story. Check back for the latest updates

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