Having lost control of his plane as it neared the ground, pilot Alexander Piekarski was faced with a daunting decision: Risk the lives of others or put his own in jeopardy.
The East Moriches resident was soaring in the blue Rhode Island skies on what seemed like the perfect Saturday afternoon when he noticed the propeller to his four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza running dangerously too fast.
That was the first indicator that things were going wrong.
“I heard a pop or a bang in the engine and oil splattered across the windshield,” Piekarski, 62, said in an interview from his East Moriches apartment Sunday morning. “I knew I was in trouble.”
Piekarski didn’t have much time to react.
With some of his visibility gone and in dire need of an emergency landing spot, Piekarski radioed air traffic control. However, there were no nearby airports.
Seconds later, the engine shut down.
Piekarski explained he decided to fly the plane from Long Island to Taunton, Massachusetts, because it had been too long since he had flown the aircraft and he needed to take the rust off and keep the plane’s engine intact.
Piekarski, a private-practice psychologist in East Moriches, said he purchased the small plane about five years ago from the widow of a World War II pilot. Her husband had outfitted the aircraft and flew it to Normandy for a gathering commemorating the invasion.
As the plane glided toward the ground, Piekarski thought he’d come across an ideal landing place – a beach in Westerly, Rhode Island.
But it was populated by scores of beachgoers.
Piekarski had a tough choice: potentially injure or kill the beachgoers or risk his own life crashing into the body of water alongside the sandy area.
“I was going to land at the beach but people were there. There was no place that gave me enough room to land safely,” the pilot said. “My intention was to skid on the shoreline of the beach.”
A crash was inevitable.
“Now you do what you have to do, but your training kicks in,” Piekarski said of his extensive experience simulating plane emergencies.
Upon impact, the left wing of the plane was clipped and at some point Piekarski struck his head against something.
He managed to make his way to shore with the help of lifeguards, but his plane was lost.
The injuries he sustained to his face are a reminder of a life nearly lost.
A long, thin laceration just above his forehead. Dried blood stains and fresh chin cuts.
A deeply bruised eye socket, wounds above both eyebrows. Red marks across his cheek. Badly bruised hips from where the seatbelt was buckled.
Longtime friend Rueben Torres, 62, of Forest Hills, Queens, drove three hours to Rhode Island Hospital, where Piekarski had been admitted, to pick him up.
Torres insisted that they ride back to his place and stay the night.
“I didn’t know if he would bleed to death or have a brain aneurysm,” Torres said, explaining his concern.
Sunday morning, he drove Piekarski back to East Moriches.
“At no point did I think I would die,” Piekarski said of the crash, relaxing in his black leather chair. Among his lost possessions were his iPhone, iPad and money.
But he returned with his life.