Plane crash witness was first on the scene calls it horrible
By JILL TAYLOR, MICHAEL LaFORGIA and KEVIN DEUTSCH
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 14, 2008
David Bruner, who lives near the scene of the Thursday’s plane crash, saw the plane making low, slow passes in the clear blue sky.
Bruner was sipping coffee and enjoying the perfect morning, a little envious of the four people in the little plane as it circled, possibly checking the wading birds in a nearby slough.
But the plane seemed to be moving a little too slow.
“I said, he’s a got to give it some throttle or he’s going to crash,” Bruner said.
Seconds later the plane nosed into the ground and Bruner jumped in his Gator to get to the scene.
There was a small fire in the engine but he didn’t have an extinguisher.
“I was stomping on the engine with my feet trying to get the fire out,” he said.
Another witness showed up with an extinguisher and put out the fire and the men checked for survivors. There were none.
“It was a horrible, horrible sight,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Bruner shook his head.
“I was in shock,” he said. “One minute, it’s such a perfect little flight, floating in the air like a little bird and the next minute, it’s in the ground and people dead.”
The dead included the pilot of the plane Jeff Rozelle, 36, and three Florida Atlantic University researchers, Damion Marx, 35, Phil Heidemann, 43, and Gareth Akerman, 36.
Paul Cox, senior air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said today’s work at the scene will collect “perishable” evidence that would otherwise be lost.
The wreckage will later be moved to a hangar for detailed examination.
Experts from Cessna, Lycoming Engines and the Federal Aviation Administration are also on the scene.
Cox said he did not yet know the status of the fuel tanks and he would not comment on whether the evidence shows the propeller was turning when the nose hit the ground, which is sometimes mentioned in crash investigation reports to indicate whether the engine was operating.
Cox said he expects to file a preliminary report in about 10 days and a factual report in about four months.
Flying the 1999 Cessna Skyhawk 172S, Rozelle was co-owner of Lantana-based Kemper Aviation. The crash was the third fatal wreck for the school’s fleet since Oct. 27. It brought the death toll in Kemper-related crashes to eight.
An instructor with the flight school that owned the plane was at the scene this morning and described Rozelle as a skilled and cautious pilot.
“Jeff was a rising star. He had worked himself up from essentially nothing to being a captain of a Lear jet,” Fred Simonds said. “He was very meticulous, very conscientious.”
“Rozelle had vast experience flying multi-engine planes and teaching others to fly,” said Simonds. "Flying an airplane like this should have been a walk in the park for him.
The flight school, which federal records suggest has the worst safety record in the state, has been under federal investigation after the recent crashes raised questions about plane maintenance and safety.
But Rozelle insisted flights with his fleet were safe.
“He will be missed tremendously, not only by his family but by all his friends and students,” said his wife, Jennifer.
The four men killed were on the final flight of a three-year research project to study the migration of wading birds in the Everglades. All but Rozelle were affiliated with Florida Atlantic University.
Marx of Boca Raton was studying integrated biology.
Heidemann was a master’s student at FAU, assisting Damion on the trip, according to the university. Heidemann earned his bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College and Iowa.
His profile on FAU’s Web site said he worked most of his life in finance and insurance, but realized a few years ago he was in the wrong field. He said he left his job and enrolled in FAU. He was recently doing research on wood storks and white ibis.
Heidemann worked in the finance department at Office Depot in Boca Raton and the claims department of an insurance agency before switching careers in 2004.
Akerman of Halifax, Canada, was an ornithologist who had been working on a six-month contract with FAU to study migratory birds. He was the son of Jeremy Akerman, who led the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party in Canada from 1968 to 1980.
The students were enrolled in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and were studying in the department of biological sciences.
Kemper instructors said observation flights like today’s often require pilots to fly low, sometimes dipping to a few hundred feet above the ground.
“If he had an engine failure, those kinds of flights, they’re flying pretty low, between 200 and 300 feet above the ground,” said Henri Massiera, who worked for Rozelle between November 2006 and June 2007. “That doesn’t give you much time.”
Witnesses noticed the small Cessna flying “low and slow” under a clear blue sky over the 20- and 50-acre ranchettes at Martin County Ranches just after 9 a.m. They said it sounded as if the plane’s single engine had quit as it glided over grazing cattle and a small pond bordered by fences, palm trees and pines.
“The plane dropped, nosed into the ground and flipped over,” Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder said.
It wasn’t clear if the pilot was trying to make an emergency landing or if he had any control over the aircraft just before the crash. There were no reports of distress calls from the pilot, but investigators will be checking with other pilots and airports to see if anyone heard radio traffic.
FAU President Frank Brogan said the flight took off from the Lantana airport about 7 a.m. At some point the plane landed at Okeechobee airport and picked up the third passenger, but it wasn’t clear which passenger boarded last.
“We are deeply saddened by this tragedy,” Brogan said.
In 2004, Rozelle partnered with Akshay Mohan to form Rohan Aviation Inc. and bought Kemper.
Despite Kemper’s spotty safety record, the Federal Aviation Administration had not stopped the company from operating. The FAA was investigating Kemper when the Cessna fell from the sky this morning.
“The Federal Aviation Administration recently conducted an inspection of Rohan Aviation maintenance and operations,” officials said in a statement. “The FAA is reviewing the results of that inspection. Until the review is complete, the FAA cannot disclose the results of the inspection, nor can we determine if enforcement action will result.”
The school’s planes crashed twice in six weeks last year, killing four people and seriously injuring a fifth. Since late August, two Kemper students, a veteran flight instructor and an experienced pilot from Pennsylvania have died.
A story in The Palm Beach Post two months ago examined the school’s troubled record. In it, a half-dozen flight instructors voiced concern that more accidents would happen if federal investigators didn’t intervene.
Rozelle told the newspaper he didn’t blame his pilots for feeling uneasy, but also said he felt safe in the school’s planes.
“I take my son up and my family up at times, and I wouldn’t do it if I felt it was unsafe,” Rozelle said.
With Rozelle’s death, the future of the flight school is uncertain. Rozelle headed the school in Lantana while his partner, Mohan, worked from India.
Reached in New Delhi, Col. Chander Mohan, who heads Kemper Aviation’s operations in that city, said he wasn’t sure whether the flight school would continue to operate.
“I have no idea,” said Chander Mohan, who is Akshay Mohan’s father. “Absolutely, Jeff is the only person who would have decided.”