By Denise Hollinshed and Nassim Benchaabane St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A single-engine plane barely missed a fuel tanker before crashing into the parking lot of a gas station Wednesday afternoon, claiming the life of the pilot.
Police did not identify the pilot, but late Wednesday others, including St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, identified him on Twitter as Jim Smith.
Smith helped lead the $100 million renovation of the Chase Park Plaza hotel in the Central West End in the late 1990s. He also managed the reopened hotel for years.
Krewson said Smith was key to that project, which she called “the single biggest impetus for bringing back the Central West End.” The iconic complex at the corner of Kingshighway and Lindell Boulevard had been closed for nine years before it was revived by Smith and his partners.
Krewson was a longtime alderman whose ward included the CWE before she was elected mayor this year.
Smith had been involved in real estate his entire life in St. Louis and elsewhere, the mayor said. She said he was a family man with adult children and grandchildren.
“He was a great guy,” Krewson said, “one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with.”
Before the crash, the pilot had been cleared to land at nearby Spirit of St. Louis Airport, but then reported the plane was losing power, according to John Bales, director of the airport.
The pilot told Bales, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”
Chesterfield Police Capt. Ed Nestor said a police officer who happened to be nearby heard the plane clip the canopy over the pumps at the BP Gas Station at 110 Long Road. She looked up to see the plane crash and explode into flames.
“Several witnesses were out,” Nestor said. “Everybody went over and tried to do what they could, but there really wasn’t much that they could do.”
He said witnesses reported they did not hear any engine noise before the crash. The crash site was just feet from where the fuel tanker was parked.
Fire Marshal Roger Herin said there was one person on board the aircraft when it crashed. That person was pronounced dead on the scene.
“The plane was totally involved in fire when we arrived on the scene,” Herin said. “We extinguished the flames pretty quickly.”
The plane was based here, Nestor said. An online flight tracking site indicated the plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, was en route to Spirit from Albuquerque, N.M. The Federal Aviation Administration listed Wings West LLC of Las Vegas as the owner.
Chesterfield police secured the scene for investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Mary Flynn said she had just bought a few items at the gas station and was getting into her car when she heard a loud crash. It was the plane clipping the gas station canopy.
Flynn turned just in time to see the plane hit the ground and burst into flames, just about 10 feet from a woman at one of the fuel pumps, she said. The plane skidded several feet to where it came to stop at the edge of the parking lot.
“Within seconds there were four or five people with fire extinguishers who tried to put the fire out, which helped for a few seconds, but the flames reignited almost instantly after the extinguishers were depleted,” Flynn said. “They tried several times but it was no use.
“It was just too much. It was a fireball.”
The smoke was so thick she couldn’t see, Flynn said. She ran into the gas station, where she found the woman who had been so close to the impact uninjured but “shaken up.”
The plane would’ve hit an 18-wheel fuel tanker had it not clipped the canopy and skidded to the side, Flynn said.
“It was pretty remarkable that by some miracle the plane missed the tanker truck literally by mere feet,” she said.
Things were quiet right up until the crash, Flynn said.
“There was no sound of an engine, no sound whatsoever,” she said. “No one had a clue that plane was coming unless they were looking up at the sky.
“It’s almost surreal. You don’t expect it, and then you’re immediately thankful that no one else was hurt. You feel gratitude no one else was hurt and then great sadness for the poor pilot that didn’t survive.”
Flynn said she thought the pilot may have been able to guide his plane just before the crash so that it didn’t the fuel pumps or any buildings, including a nearby daycare, she said.
“If he did, he did a miraculous job of making sure no one else was hurt,” she said.
Ron Mansfield, a Chesterfield resident, drove past the scene about the 30 seconds after the crash, he said.
Mansfield said he saw thick black smoke rising from behind some buildings in an area he knows well.
“As soon as I turned the corner I saw a big fire in the McDonald’s parking lot,” he said. “When I got closer I saw that it was a plane on fire.”
Mansfield thought he saw a man trying to break the plane window open. He said the man had to retreat as the flames grew.
“By the time I pulled up and got out to help it was too late, the fire was enormous,” he said.
Mansfield said he thought the gas station canopy and a light post the plane struck as it crashed stopped it from hitting anything else.
The plane missed an 18-wheel fuel tanker by less than 100 feet, he said.
“People standing in the parking lot were only a few feet from fuel pumps, a tanker and a burning building,” he said. “It could’ve been a lot worse. Unfortunately it was just way too late for the pilot.”