Evan Kisseloff, 21, of Oceanside, walks with a diploma after...

Evan Kisseloff, 21, of Oceanside, walks with a diploma after he graduated from Farmingdale State College. He was the lone survivor of a Pennsylvania plane crash that killed two fellow Farmingdale State College aviation students late Wednesday evening. (May 12, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

Evan Kisseloff had seconds to prepare for impact.

Just after takeoff, the small plane he and two Farmingdale State College classmates were flying suddenly lost power. The left wing clipped a tree.

From the backseat, the aircraft plunging to the ground, Kisseloff wondered if his life was ending four days before graduation.

"The first thing that went into my mind after impact was, 'This is not how it's going to end for me.' And, lo and behold, it wasn't."

Saturday, the aviation student from Oceanside returned to receive his diploma, crossing the stage despite a cracked rib and sprained ankle. His right hand was heavily bandaged.

Afterward, a stoic Kisseloff, 21, recounted the fiery plane crash in rural Sterling, Pa. -- and its aftermath.

"I am very thankful to be here," he said, speaking publicly for the first time. "And I know Patrick and Casey are watching up there and cheering me on."

The normally festive 2 1/2-hour commencement ceremony was tinged with sadness as the school remembered the victims of the Wednesday night crash: Patrick Sheridan, 34, of Long Beach, and Casey Falconer, 19, of Garden City Park, both undergraduates in the professional pilot program.

Students and faculty wept during a moment of silence for the pair. An electronic sign at the entrance to the campus flashed this message: "In Our Hearts Patrick and Casey."

Kisseloff, who graduated cum laude with a degree in aviation administration, said he plans to work for an airline in its corporate offices.

He remembered Sheridan and Falconer as passionate about flying.

Kisseloff said he counted Falconer as one of his best friends. They would often spend afternoons together, watching planes take off and land at Republic Airport in East Farmingdale.

Sheridan, he said, craved adventure.

"They were both great in their own way," Kisseloff said.

The friends had gone flying twice before, he said. On Wednesday, they flew to Pennsylvania to catch a movie in Lancaster and then visit Falconer's family in the Poconos.

About 10:30 that night, the single-engine Mooney M20J took off from Sterling's Spring Hill Airport en route to Republic.

Something went terribly wrong two or three minutes later, Kisseloff recalled.

The stall alarm sounded and the plane started going down.

Sheridan was in the pilot's seat, with Falconer strapped in next to him. When the plane hit the ground, Kisseloff said he was tossed around but didn't blackout.

He tried in vain to rouse his friends before crawling out through a broken back window. As the wrecked plane burst into flames, he said he ran to a nearby house to call for help.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators are examining the plane's charred remains, searching for clues. The cause of the crash hasn't been determined.

Students and teachers Saturday remembered the victims as smart, gifted and full of promise.

"I think about these young lives, just beginning their career and then ending way too soon," said a tearful Jeanne Radigan, an aviation professor who taught both men. "They will be missed."

Tiernan Nolan, 23, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in professional piloting, marked his black mortarboard with the victims' initials.

"You realize that there are so many things [in life] that you take for granted," said Nolan, who has joined the Air Force and will deploy to Texas and Alabama this summer.

Brian Maher, director of the Long Island Educational Opportunity Center, said in his invocation that the school is grieving as one.

"Our hearts are heavy and our spirits are saddened as we face this tragedy together," he said. "Let our collective condolences bring some level of comfort to those who are grieving, and may they know that the Farmingdale family will remain available to help them get through their suffering."

Kisseloff's father, Alan, who attended the graduation, said his heart goes out to the Falconer and Sheridan families.

"No parents should ever have to go through this kind of loss," he said.

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