A single-engine plane crash in Hicksville early Sunday left the pilot dead, his passenger injured and an LIRR branch suspended after the aircraft narrowly missed smashing into a senior living community, instead hitting nearby train tracks and catching fire.
Officials had not released the pilot's identity Sunday night. In East Farmingdale, Republic Airport air traffic control radio reports identified the tail number of the plane, which FAA records show is registered to Joseph Milo, of Westhampton Beach. Milo is certified as a single- or multi-engine commercial pilot.
Passenger Carl Giordano, 55, of New Vernon, New Jersey, was in critical condition, with a broken jaw and multiple lacerations, at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, officials said. Family members at the hospital declined to comment.
"He fell out of the plane at about the time it hit the grade crossing gate," Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Salvatore Arena said.
The plane, a Beechcraft C-35 Bonanza, was about 15 to 20 feet above the ground when he was ejected.
The plane traveled at least another 100 feet before crashing about 7:45 a.m. onto train tracks near the South Oyster Bay Road crossing, Arena said. The plane came to a stop about 50 feet east of the crossing and "exploded into flames," Arena said.
The crash -- between the Hicksville and Bethpage Long Island Rail Road stations -- destroyed signal lights at the South Oyster Bay Road crossing and forced the suspension of the Ronkonkoma line in both directions, Arena said.
"This tragic incident could have been much worse. There was no train going through at that point, but the crossing was open so there could have been cars going through, but we don't have any report of that at this time," he said.
The Ronkonkoma line was fully restored, the LIRR tweeted about 8:45 p.m. Sunday night, but officials were still assessing the impact on the morning commute.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, Nassau County police, the MTA and the Federal Aviation Administration were on the scene Sunday and the plane wreckage had been removed.
The air taxi flight had been en route to an airport in Morristown, New Jersey, after taking off from Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach.
"They were at about 6,500 feet when the pilot reported that he needed to turn back to Westhampton Beach because he couldn't maintain altitude and had an engine problem," said Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the NTSB, which is investigating the cause of the crash.
Witness Frank Hoeffner, 32, of Hicksville said the aircraft went down less than a minute before he happened upon the crash site. A few cars had stopped ahead of him on South Oyster Bay Road, and people were getting out and looking toward the tracks.
"I saw the wing of a plane, and I looked over and saw the burning wreckage of the body" of the plane, Hoeffner said. "It really didn't look like anybody would have survived the crash."
Despite that, Hoeffner said he and two other men ran for the smoldering machinery, which caught fire as they approached. They couldn't see or hear anyone in the plane, but emergency responders hadn't arrived yet.
"I wasn't going to stand there and let people burn to death if they were in the plane," he said. "If we could have helped the people there, I think we would have."
Heat and growing flames forced them back and firefighters arrived soon after, waving off bystanders and securing the scene.
The propeller plane stopped on the tracks within 100 feet of Cambridge Court, a senior living community.
No residents were injured, but some could see the burning wreckage through their windows, about 100 feet away from the nearest building.
Arleen Jonason, 72, said she heard two loud bangs when the plane went down.
"I look out the window and see flames shooting out of the plane," she said.
Her neighbor, Charles Terzano, 78, heard the crash from his bedroom and went outside in time to see the plane burst into flames.
"A few guys started to run over, but they had to get back because the plane started on fire and they were afraid," Terzano said. "It just melted. It was a horror, a real horror."