Plane crash-lands on street

Five people are hurt when a cargo plane bound for the Bahamas lands in a Fort Lauderdale neighborhood.

By wire services
Published June 14, 2005

FORT LAUDERDALE - The vintage cargo plane was in trouble moments after it took off from the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.

One of the DC-3's two engines caught fire. A densely populated residential community loomed below.

The pilots steered the crippled World War II-era craft toward a street barely wide enough to accommodate the plane's 95-foot wingspan.

"This plane was just pancaking," said resident Jay Huber. "Nose up, engines going like hell, like it was trying to stay up, and it was only about 150 feet in air."

Seconds later, the plane smashed down and skidded about 100 yards along the street, narrowly missing several houses. The wings smashed trees and dug through lawns and driveways.

Amazingly, the two pilots and the lone passenger scrambled free before the plane turned into a fireball. All three people from the plane and two from the ground were taken to area hospitals. One of the two on the ground suffered serious injuries.

"It's hard to imagine describing a plane accident as a miracle, but the fact that nobody was killed when a plane crashed into a neighborhood can only be described as a miracle," City Manager George Gretsas said.

In a neighborhood that includes a medical center, high school and other buildings, officials said the incident could have erupted into a full-blown disaster.

The plane, bound for Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas with 3,200 pounds of granite aboard, went down about 3 miles east of the airport, minutes after it took off at 3:48 p.m.

Firefighters blasted the wreckage with water and foam. With the fire out, the plane rested in pieces, mostly in the middle of the street.

"As much as possible, it landed on a roadway," said David Rafter, spokesman for Oakland Park Fire Rescue.

The cause of the crash is under investigation.

Co-pilot Charles Wirt told firefighters he thought a fuel line broke, which caused the engine to catch fire, said Stephen McInerny, assistant chief of operations for Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue.

The weather at the time was partly cloudy with no lightning or heavy winds.

Wirt, pilot Charles Riggs and passenger Hector Espinoza suffered leg and inhalation injuries and flash burns, McInerny said.

They are in fair condition at Holy Cross Hospital. A hospital spokeswoman said they were sitting up and talking on their cell phones.

Espinoza told emergency room personnel that "he jumped from the cockpit and landed on the concrete," said physician Seth Marquit.

Mark Davis, 47, was just arriving home when the plane crashed about a block away. The pastor of Calvary Chapel said he saw the plane's wings clipping the tops of trees as it roared overhead. It then hit the ground out of sight, making the sound of "hollow metal crushing together."

He and his son ran to the site, where smoke and flames were already rising.

Some buildings on the street were damaged by flying debris.

McInerny said the left wing of the plane did the most damage, uprooting trees and flinging broken trunks and branches into vehicles, homes and apartments. Several roofs were hit.

Televised pictures showed firefighters putting out the fire with water and foam in a roadway, the burned-out cockpit and cabin near several parked cars.

Some residents on the street were evacuated and the Red Cross offered shelter for the night.

The plane is a version of the DC-3 that was modified for Navy use, FAA spokesman Greg Martin said.

Martin said the plane was operating under visual flight rules.

Another Bahamas-bound cargo flight narrowly missed buildings as it crashed in December in the Aventura area northeast of Miami. That twin-engine Convair pancaked into a lake surrounded by condominium towers as the pilot and co-pilot scrambled to safety.

--Times staff writer Graham Brink contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.