Unclear who was piloting plane during crash that killed 2, NTSB official says

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)

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An investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board said there were two licensed pilots in the cockpit of the single-engine plane that crashed into a residential Long Island neighborhood moments after takeoff Sunday, killing two of the three people on board, including an Orange County school official.

NTSB Investigator Brian Rayner said it is not clear which of the men was flying the plane when it went down in Shirley.

Rayner said the air frame of the Socata TB10 was heavily damaged in the crash but said the engine was in “surprisingly good shape” and will be removed to Brookhaven Calabro Airport for examination.

He said investigators will try to determine if the plane was on a review flight as part of a potential sale of the aircraft.

The aircraft is registered in Florida to David J. McElroy, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

“In general, we look at the man, the machine and the environment,” Rayner said at a mid-morning news conference.

The identity of one of the front-seat pilots, who was killed in the crash, has still not been released pending notification of next of kin. The other front-seat pilot, identified as Erik Unhjem, 61, of Goshen, remains in critical condition Monday at Stony Brook University Hospital.

Passenger Jane Unhjem, 60, the wife of Erik Unhjem, died of her injuries at Stony Brook at about 7:30 p.m. — almost eight hours after the accident. Jane Unhjem was an assistant superintendent for the Goshen Central School District.

Rayner said it was still unclear Monday whether Erik Unhjem or the other front-seat pilot “was actually manipulating the flight controls.”

Chrissy Pahucki, an art teacher at C.J. Hooker Middle School in the Goshen School District and a friend of Jane Unjhem’s, said she thought the couple went to Long Island to test fly a plane they were considering purchasing.

Erik Unhjem was passionate about flying, Pahucki said, and often would fly to Connecticut so he could accumulate flight hours required to keep his pilot's license current.

Daniel Connor, superintendent at the Goshen Central School District, said he knew one of Erik Unhjem's passions was flying and that his wife supported that passion.

The plane crashed moments after its 11:48 a.m. takeoff from Calabro, officials said.

Rayner said preliminary witness testimony suggested the plane may have used most of the available runway before lifting off, while one witness told investigators the aircraft dipped below the roofline of his home, then briefly gained altitude, before striking trees and crashing onto Helene Avenue.

The plane, which came to rest upside down, then erupted in fire, officials said. That fire “consumed” the wings, Rayner said, and heavily damaged most of the airframe.

Residents extinguished the fire using garden hoses, but could not free the trapped front-seat occupant.
Investigators will look at the qualifications of the two pilots on board, their experience and certificates held, Rayner said.

He said they also will examine the wreckage of the plane and its maintenance and fueling history, the air traffic environment and the weather.

“We’re out here with a big net, picking up as much data as we can,” Rayner said. “We believe the entire airplane is here.” He said investigators are most concerned about perishable evidence at the scene and will focus on that before delving into records and other non-perishable evidence.

In about one week, Rayner said, he will write and submit a preliminary report about the incident. Later, he will follow up with a full report to be presented to a five-member safety board that will determine probable cause of accident.

That can take as long as a year, Rayner said.

The crash was reported in 911 calls just before noon.

Calabro is an uncontrolled field, meaning it does not have an air traffic control tower, and it is not clear if the plane was in distress before crashing.

The FAA said the plane was operating under visual flight rules and therefore, according to protocol, would not have been in communication with controllers at TRACON.

No one on the ground was injured in the crash.

Awilda Ruiz, 47, of Crestwood Drive in Shirley, said the plane landed close to her house and she helped two occupants — Erik and Jane Unhjem — as soon as they emerged from the burning wreckage, 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.

Ruiz said she stayed with them until rescuers arrived.

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

Jacqueline Resto, 24, of Helene Avenue, said her family tried to pull the still unidentified other pilot from 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 crash scene is about a mile from Calabro.

Suffolk police said they received numerous 911 calls at 11:55 a.m. reporting the plane had crashed. The pilot was pronounced dead at the scene.

Brookhaven Town spokesman Jack Krieger said that the single-engine plane took off from Calabro at 11:48 a.m.

Damage was reported to trees, one automobile and a 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.

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."

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 Meghan Murphy and Carl Corry

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