BY MIKE HELLGREN
BALTIMORE — The first calls came in shortly after 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
That’s when people began reporting that a small plane had crashed into a large transmission tower in Gaithersburg not far from the Montgomery County AirPark.
Kevin Kitonga works at a nearby CVS pharmacy. He said he heard the crash, ran out of the store and recorded video.
Bystanders could clearly see the plane, but because it was so dark, the plane appeared to be suspended in midair.
“We were just all in suspense,” Kitonga told WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren. “We were honestly just watching because we didn’t know if the plane was going to abruptly fall on the ground. The way it was stuck in there did not look safe. It was like dang near dangling.”
It would be nearly seven hours before police rescued the pilot and his passenger. They were able to call 911 themselves while dangling 100 feet above the ground.
An operator stayed on the phone with them for hours.
“We then started relaying the messages through her to state to the folks inside the aircraft,” Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Goldstein said. “Then, at a point, we transitioned to calling the aircraft occupants directly and began that dialogue.”
Everyone was concerned about the stability of the aircraft, Goldstein said.
“They were disoriented to the complexity of the circumstances, so as all of our call takers do, you work on reassuring them, providing them frequent updates, establishing a dialogue with them so you’re exchanging information,” he said
He noted that first responders were able to get an initial assessment of their conditions. First responders were worried that hypothermia would set in, Goldstein said.
“We started asking questions about their medical conditions, doing everything we would do face-to-face with a patient but by the telephone,” he said.
Goldstein said the operation was “like eating an elephant” because it was so large in scope.
“You eat it one bite at a time, and the elephant here is the aircraft, the power, the pole and the height,” he said.
He was able to procure bucket trucks from a contractor that reached 178 feet in the air, essential to the delicate rescue.
It was just after midnight when the two were lowered to the ground. It would take about three more hours before crews lowered the plane and engine, which they did separately.
Both pieces remained on the road Monday evening. The National Transportation Safety Board will examine them as they search for a cause with assistance from Maryland State Police.
The area around the Montgomery County Airpark has seen tragedy before. A woman and her children were killed eight years ago this month when a plane slammed into their home.
For the county executive, figuring out why the latest crash happened is critical.
“My first question is was this thing even on a flight path, and if it wasn’t on a flight path, why wasn’t it?” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said. “It was too low from what I’ve heard from where it should have been in the approach and obviously didn’t know there were wires and a pole here. That, to me, is a problem.”