What to Know
- Two people were rescued after they were left stranded in the crumpled aircraft 100 feet from the ground. They were taken to trauma centers with serious injuries, the fire department said.
- Around 85,000 people were without power in Montgomery County for around six hours, according to PEPCO. Around 125 traffic signals were not working, and drivers were advised to treat them as all-way stops.
- Montgomery County Public Schools and Montgomery College campuses will be closed Monday due to the power outage.
A small plane with two people aboard slammed into a power transmission tower in Montgomery County, Maryland, on Sunday evening, authorities said. Both people were left stranded for hours in the crumpled aircraft 100 feet from the ground, and the crash left large swaths of the county without power.
The National Transportation Safety Board assigned an agent to investigate the cause of the crash, officials said Monday.
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The single-engine Mooney M20J plane crashed into PEPCO electricity transmission wires, then became embedded in the southern power tower near Goshen Road and Rothbury Drive in Gaithersburg around 5:40 p.m., the FAA and Montgomery County authorities said.
Montgomery County fire department spokesman Pete Piringer said the survivors called 911 from the dangling plane and stayed in constant contact with rescue personnel amid a complicated rescue operation that involved stabilizing the aircraft and deenergizing some power lines.
“I’m just concerned about … the possibility we could slip out of this tower and go tail-first to the ground, and that would not be a survivable distance,” the pilot told the 911 dispatcher.
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The pilot has been identified as Patrick Merkle, 66, of D.C., and the passenger as Janet Williams, 66, of Marrero, Louisiana.
Merkle explained to the 911 dispatcher, Laurel Manion, that he had visibility of the airport and had descended to the minimum altitude.
“Then, apparently, I got down a little bit lower than I should have,” he said.
Manion was on the phone with them for about an hour and a half.
“Fortunately, we don’t have a lot of wind, but if we get some wind going, we’re goners,” the pilot told 911.
Manion told News4’s Jackie Bensen once rescuers were on scene, 911’s mission shifted to calming down the pilot and his passenger.
“I know that when we had, talked through wanting to get out, them wanting to get while they were still in the plane and it first started to shift due to the wind picking up, he had told me, I don’t think there’s even enough room for me to stand on this tower even if I do get out,” Manion said. “So, from there we just said the best thing to do was to remain as still as possible and just wait until we could get up to them.”
Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Chief Scott Goldstein said at 1 a.m. Monday that the pilot and passenger were successfully rescued and taken to local trauma centers with serious injuries related to hypothermia, orthopedics and trauma issues.
"They are fortunate to survive," Goldstein said. "They were anxious. They were concerned about the stability of the aircraft… remaining in the tower structure.”
The two survivors’ conditions have improved, but one of them remains in the hospital, Goldstein said.
Manion was on the phone with them for about an hour and a half.
“I just want to say that I’m really, really glad that both of the pilot and the passenger made it out safely,” Manion said. “That was the ultimate goal, and I hope you guys are doing good. I wish you good health.”
The plane was split into two parts before its removal from the tower. The NTSB must investigate the aircraft before it's removed from the area.
Arthur Gentile, whose home is just behind the transmission tower, said he heard a loud boom when the plane crashed. He initially thought a transformer had blown.
“My wife looked outside and screamed because she could see sparks flying from the tower,” Gentile said. “And that's when we came outside and we saw the plane, just hanging on the tower.”
Nearby resident Kevin Coit said the plane hitting the tower was like a scene from a movie.
“Terrifying actually, because I couldn't imagine anyone could have survived that; the explosion was so loud [that] it shook the house,” Coit said.
Authorities initially said the people inside were not hurt but were stuck in the plane that was wedged into the transmission tower.
“It was my understanding that the propellers came into contact with the wires but immediately went into the actual structure, so they were not impacting the actual lines where that plane was actually sitting, and we were able to immediately take action to deenergize … that particular area,” said Donna Cooper of PEPCO.
In an update Sunday night, Goldstein explained what the rescue would entail.
"There is no other way to determine if it's safe to access the tower until it is grounded, or bonded," Goldstein said. "Crews have to go up to the wires themselves to put clamps or cables onto the wire to then ensure that there's no static electricity, no residual power... as well as the vibration of the airplane, securing the airplane to the tower structure."
At around 11:30 p.m., crews were successful in grounding the power lines. Forty-five minutes later, the plane was stabilized and completely secured to the tower. By 12:36 a.m., both the pilot and passenger had been brought down from the aircraft, Goldstein said.
During the rescue, authorities said they were in communication with the two people on board, but were trying to conserve the battery on the cellphones they were using. They were checking in with them regularly.
The fire department urged the community to stay away because the area was very dangerous.
Crews used a crane to remove the plane from the tower and lowered it to the ground at about 3 a.m. Monday. The plane remains on the ground around the transmission tower.
The collision damaged a transmission system, leaving approximately 85,000 customers without electricity for about six hours, PEPCO said. Transition systems move bulk power to distribution substations, which then deliver power to customers.
Power was restored to all customers by Monday morning.
The Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) said about 125 traffic signal lights were without power as of 11:15 p.m. and reminded drivers to treat the non-functioning signals as an all-way stop.
Montgomery County Public Schools closed its schools and offices due to the outage. Montgomery College also closed all of its campuses and locations.
Metro's Red Line from Shady Grove to Grosvenor-Strathmore and Glenmont to Silver Spring was also affected and delays were to be expected, WMATA said. Shuttle buses were available at Wheaton.
The FAA said the plane departed Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York. The intended destination was the Montgomery County Airpark, the fire department said.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation. There were reports of fog in the area, but officials have not confirmed if the weather was a factor.
This is a developing story. Refresh for updates.