WEST CALDWELL — After sprinting through thorny, barely passable woods, the two men arrived out of breath to a smashed aircraft engulfed in flames and a pilot, burned and bleeding, lying near the tail.
Heron De Dios, 35, of Elmwood Park, and Scott Bauman, 50, of West Orange, had been teaching their regular softball clinic Saturday afternoon at a facility off Passaic Avenue when a small aircraft crashed into woods at around 12:45 p.m. just behind a row of homes in a residential neighborhood. Neighbors reported hearing a loud boom.
De Dios’ 15-year-old daughter, Lianna — who said she had seen the plane struggling to maintain altitude — rushed inside to tell her father.
De Dios and Bauman immediately rushed outside and darted through the woods to the crash site where they found the pilot lying in a contorted position near the tail of the plane. They said his leg appeared to be broken, his face and body severely burned, his mouth bloody, and that what was left of his shirt was scorched from the flames.The plane — a Hawker Beachcraft Bonanza — had crashed in the woods adjacent to Patton Drive, which is about a mile-and-a-half from the Essex County Airport, according to officials in a previous report.
“The back of his shirt was smoking, it was still burning, and we took that portion of the shirt off,” De Dios recalled.
“I threw my sweatshirt on top of him,” Bauman added, standing next to De Dios.
The two men recounted the story on Sunday near the crash site. De Dios’ wife and two daughters tagged along.
The West Essex First Aid Squad, which responded to the crash, confirmed that a group of bystanders was helping the pilot when the squad arrived and took over.
Despite the pilot’s injuries, he was conscious and able to speak, the two men said.
“I kept saying ‘We’re going to get you out of here,'” Bauman recalled.
But, with flames continuing to roar nearby, De Dios worried about an explosion.
“I could feel the heat,” De Dios said. “We moved him just a few yards, and at that point, I was still looking at the roaring flames, thinking we are still too close.”
He added, “I asked him how much fuel was in the plane.”
The pilot told him the fuel tank was full, De Dios said.
Then, De Dios said two other men who had been at the softball clinic arrived to assist. The group then quickly carried the pilot away from the burning aircraft to a safe distance.
Emergency personnel ultimately arrived and took over. The pilot was taken to St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, however, the extent and seriousness of his injuries remains unclear, according to officials in a previous report.
Multiple requests for comment were not returned Sunday by St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center, National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration, Fairfield or West Caldwell police. The Essex County Sheriff’s Office referred questions to West Caldwell police.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been notified and the FAA is investigating, officials have said.
As the men recounted the ordeal Sunday afternoon — this time at the entrance of a building on the other side of the crash site — a black SUV pulled up alongside the group.
Driving the vehicle turned out to be West Caldwell Police Chief Gerard Paris, who began talking to the two men about the rescue. The chief gave the men his card, shook their hands and thanked them for their heroic deed.
Bauman later said that they didn’t really think about it, they just reacted, and when they saw the pilot in agony, they did what they could to get him to safety.
Staff writer Sara Jerde contributed to this report.