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Two families remember day their lives collided

A year later, they commemorate the pilot who died when he crashed into a Davis Islands home.

Published June 13, 2007

The Huisman and Tate families say a prayer in front of the Tates' new Davis Islands home, which replaced the house destroyed when Steve Huisman crashed into it with a small plane.
[Times photo: Danny Ghitis]
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa | 2006]
Officials examine the remains of the airplane that crashed into the Davis Islands home June 12, 2006. The pilot was attempting to make an emergency landing at the Peter O. Knight airport.

TAMPA - Exactly one year after the crash, not a cloud hung over the Tate family's new Davis Islands home. It was 89 degrees Tuesday, and sunny.

Tom Tate carved a watermelon on his new kitchen counter. Guests were on their way.

His wife, Cynthia, looked at the clock, stomach in a knot. It was almost noon. Almost a year since a twin-engine plane plowed into her living room during Tropical Storm Alberto.

Almost time for the pilot's family to arrive from Bradenton, to commemorate 41-year-old Steve Huisman's death.

Cynthia looked out the window. "They're here," she said.

Sonya Huisman stood on the sidewalk, holding her 2-year-old daughter Sarena, admiring a tree planted at the scene of the crash.

Her other kids - Andrew, 4, Anna, 7, and Mikayla, 9 - stood close by, as did her husband's parents, Roberta and Ronald Huisman.

It didn't feel like a year.

Huisman and 25-year-old co-pilot Sean Launder were releasing sterilized Mediterranean fruit flies from Sarasota to Tampa when Huisman called in a fuel problem. He tried to make an emergency landing at Davis Islands' Peter O. Knight airport. His plane skidded off the runway just after 12:30 p.m.

Launder was injured, but recovered. He moved to Ohio this year.

Sonya Huisman plans to move to Texas, to be closer to her family. She made the hour drive to Tampa on Tuesday so that her children could see the crash site and remember their father.

Andrew still sleeps with his dad's airplane manual. At last year's memorial service, he looked up at a pilot and asked, "Are you going to teach me how to fly?"

Andrew reminds Roberta Huisman so much of her son. His parents raised Steve in Papua New Guinea, while doing Christian missionary work. The camp was so remote, they had to fly in and out.

It came as no surprise when Steve became an airplane mechanic and later a pilot. He would tell his mother, "Don't worry about me. Pray for me, because if something ever happens to me, I've done what I wanted to do."

This year, she has done a lot of praying.

Remnants of old

The Tates had met the Huismans only one time before Tuesday - the Saturday after the crash. Roberta wanted to know exactly how her son died. She wanted to know he didn't suffer.

Since that day, the families had kept in touch through e-mail.

When the Tates got a surprise visit from ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and a brand new house in January, the Huismans wished them well in television interviews.

The huge house on 629 E Davis Blvd. still smells new.

But a display case in the living room contains the few remnants of the old Tate home: melted car keys, an aged Bible pried from a bookshelf. When Cynthia opens it, the eerie burnt smell brings back a scene Cynthia remembers like a dream.

She was the only person in the family's yellow wood frame house when she heard the explosion, then saw the embers flying. She got out, but her house was destroyed. Her family's two dogs and two cats died.

Cynthia still wonders whether she could have done something to help the two men in the crash. She still gets scared when planes make emergency landings at the airport.

Three new pets have joined the Tates: Bella, a dog, and Tiki and Jem, cats.

A boulder sits in the spot of first impact, outside the Tates' new home, etched: In memory of the tragic events of June 12, 2006 and the lives touched by it.

Balloons to heaven

The two families held hands near the boulder, where their lives first collided. In the afternoon ahead, Andrew would try out Tommy Tate's drum set. They would all eat pizza from Tom Tate's restaurant. Loren Tate and Mikayla would stand back to back and compare their height.

But for now they stood in a circle, and Ronald led a prayer. The whoosh of passing cars swept over his soft voice.

Then, he opened the trunk of his van, and emerged with a bunch of white balloons. Everybody got one, and wrote a message to Steve in black marker.

Peace be with you, Cynthia wrote. Steve, I love you so much. We honor you. Thanks for being my son, Roberta wrote. I love you, dad, Mikayla wrote.

Andrew didn't wait for a countdown. "They need to go up to heaven," he said.

He opened his tiny hand, and watched the balloon float high above the trees and the airport, until he couldn't see it anymore.

"Up, up and away," he said.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 813 226-3354 or

[Last modified June 13, 2007, 00:17:09]

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