Jun 22, 2023

Small Plane Crashes Into Transmission Tower in Maryland


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Rescuers on Sunday night worked carefully to extricate the two people on board. Photos showed the plane entangled in power lines.

By Eduardo Medina

A small plane crashed into a transmission tower in Maryland on Sunday, knocking out electricity to tens of thousands of customers as rescuers raced to extricate the two people on board who were trapped about 100 feet above the ground, the authorities said.

The pilot, Patrick Merkle, 65, of Washington, and the passenger, Jan Williams, 66, of Louisiana, were rescued after midnight with “serious injuries,” Chief Scott Goldstein of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service said at a news conference. Both were transported to a trauma center. Their conditions had improved by Monday afternoon, and one person was released.

Fire crews had removed all plane parts from the tower by 4 a.m., Chief Goldstein said. Firefighters stabilized the plane via crane and segmented the engine and plane in two pieces. They then lowered those down separately and carefully, having to work around high-voltage power lines.

The authorities had been in contact with the two people as the aircraft dangled in the power lines and tower, speaking only every 30 minutes to preserve the passengers’ cellphone battery. Chief Goldstein did not state the exact injuries of the two people, saying only that there had been a “hypothermia issue,” as well as orthopedic and trauma injuries from the crash.

By midnight on Sunday, electricity had been restored to the roughly 85,000 customers whose service was directly affected by the crash, Ben Armstrong, a spokesman for Pepco, the energy provider, said on Monday. At one point, Pepco’s outage map showed service to about 117,000 customers was fluctuating, as electricity was rerouted during the repairs.

The authorities hope to reopen roads that had been closed by Monday evening. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

The pilot and passenger had been flying to Montgomery County Airpark, an airport near Gaithersburg, Md., about 40 miles west of Baltimore, said Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the fire and rescue service. The Federal Aviation Administration said the plane, a single-engine Mooney M20J, had departed from Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., on Sunday.

It remained unclear what led to the crash, which happened in Montgomery Village, Md., around 5:40 p.m. and made for unusual photos by residents and officials on social media. The images and videos showed the plane entangled in power lines and seemingly suspended in the air in a snarled mess of metal.

By 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, officials had devised a rescue plan, Chief Goldstein said: First, crews would go up the tower and ensure the wires had no residual power. The crews would place cables on the wire and transfer any static electricity to a ground source, he said.

Another crew would then use bucket trucks — which are vehicles used to elevate workers — to access the aircraft, secure it to the tower and remove the pilot and the passenger, Chief Goldstein said.

“It’s not going to be stable until it’s chained and strapped in place,” Chief Goldstein said. “Any movement, any accidental movement, could make the circumstance worse.”

To make matters more difficult, dense fog in the area had worsened visibility during the seven-hour rescue operation, making things more slippery and dangerous, Chief Goldstein said.

By 10 p.m., bucket trucks had arrived at the scene and crews were preparing to embark on what officials expected to be a risky operation that would take hours. At one point, more than 100 fire and rescue workers were at the site.

“We are taking measured and risk-balanced steps to approach this,” Chief Goldstein said.

In addition to the dangerous rescue operation, officials and residents had been contending with an adjacent problem: Wide swaths of the county, which has about one million residents, were without power for part of Sunday night, and officials were unsure how long restoration would take, given the extensive damage to the tower.

The Montgomery County Public School System said that because more than 40 of its schools and six office facilities were without power on Sunday night, it would cancel classes and close its offices on Monday. The county announced that Montgomery College would also close its campuses on Monday.

Two hospitals in the area, MedStar Montgomery Medical Center and Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, were briefly operating at limited capacity on Sunday because of the outages.

Mr. Piringer said there were reports of stalled elevators and malfunctioning traffic lights on Sunday night. Shortly before midnight, there were about 100 intersections with traffic signal outages, he said, a number he considered particularly dangerous because of the dense fog.

Christine Hauser and April Rubin contributed reporting.

Eduardo Medina is a reporter covering breaking news. More about Eduardo Medina