DC-3 Cargo Plane Crashes Onto Street in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

June 15, 2005
A flight crew managed to crash-land an ailing DC-3S cargo plane on a two-laned Fort Lauderdale street without anyone getting killed or seriously injured

A flight crew managed to crash-land an ailing DC-3S cargo plane on a two-laned Fort Lauderdale street without anyone getting killed or seriously injured Monday afternoon.

Pilot Charles Riggs, 62, of Pembroke Pines, compared the crisis in the air to when he had helicopters he was piloting crash during the Vietnam War.

''There was no terror,'' Riggs said. ''We were going for the biggest, widest spot we could aim for.''

Riggs, copilot Charles Wirt, 57, of Miami, and passenger Hector Espinoza, 46, of Lantana, spoke briefly to reporters late Monday night at Holy Cross hospital in Fort Lauderdale.

The three escaped with minor injuries.

''I'm so glad we're alive,'' said an emotional Wirt. ''I'm so glad we didn't take someone else out.''

The crash stunned the north Fort Lauderdale neighborhood, where residents couldn't believe their eyes.

Richard Founds was standing outside his apartment shortly after 3:48 pm Monday when he heard a thunderous crash. He turned and saw the downed cargo plane engulfed in flames.

Then he saw a man scramble out of a side window.

''I started running,'' Founds said. ''Hell, yeah - I ran!''

Trees and several cars along two-laned Northeast 56th Street were demolished by the aircraft, with a wingspan of 95 feet, which minutes before had taken off from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, a mere 3 miles away.

Amazingly, none of the homes standing yards away were destroyed, although some sustained roof damage. Most of the plane debris only made it as far as neighborhood driveways.

''It's hard to imagine describing a plane accident as a miracle,'' said Fort Lauderdale city manager George Gretsas. ''But the fact that nobody was killed when a plane crashed into a neighborhood can only be described as a miracle.''

Fire rescue evacuated 65 people from their homes and the Red Cross was on the scene providing aid. Several residents were taken to the hospital, but none with serious injuries.

The crash scene, which may be cleared by late this afternoon, was described as surreal.

Although the weather was sweltering hot, 56th Street was covered in snow-like, white foam, the kind firefighters use to snuff out flames from engine fuel.

A wing took up most of eastbound 56th Street and jutted into a front yard. The nose of the plane was in the westbound side.

The scorched cabin and cockpit ended up near several parked cars.

''It could have been tragic,'' said Fort Lauderdale Police Sgt. Andy Pallen, who said the plane had problems shortly after take off. Pallen said the plane was carrying granite.

Federal officials said it was headed to Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas.

City crews expect to have their work cut out for them: The intense fire likely melted the asphalt beneath the crash. Wreckage that spans a city street. Officials expect the 1700 block of 56th Street to be closed today.

Riggs, a pilot for 44 years, said the plane he had nicknamed Rosie had been inspected about two weeks ago. He said he thought the crash was caused by a mechanical problem.

Wirt, the copilot, had told firefighters a fuel line broke and one of the DC-3's two engines was in flames before the crash, said Stephen McInerny, assistant chief of operations for Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue.

Jose Obregon, investigator-in-charge for the National Transportation Safety Board said a preliminary report on what caused the crash will be released in five days.

Obregon said the plane reached 300 feet when the control tower at Executive airport saw smoke coming from the left engine, causing it to lose power.

The tower tried to get in contact with the crew, but it is not known why they did not respond, he said.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the plane is registered to John W. Andrews of Wichita Falls, Texas.

Andrews says that Riggs is one of the best pilots he knows. ''I'm tickled that they're all right. The rest can all be sorted out,'' Andrews said. ''My guess is that the engine rolled snake eyes -- crapped out -- and he couldn't ... get it started.''

Riggs faced the ''grim reaper'' before, Andrews said. ''He was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam,'' Andrews said. ''He has nine lives and is one of the luckiest men I know.''

But Riggs was not the only hero of the day.

Roberto Colina, 30, of Fort Lauderdale, a maintenance work at First Presbyterian Church in Pompano Beach, helped rescue members of the crew from burning wreckage that had crashed a mere 20 feet away in front of him as he drove west on 56th Street.

''I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it -- that is not true,'' he said.

''It's amazing that three people scampered out of that plane with only flash burns and smoke inhalation,'' McInerny said.

Matt D'Andrea, a volunteer firefighter for Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, and his roommate, Jamie Purcell, heard the crash from one street away. The whole house shook, Purcell said.

''We hear a boom and then a loud explosion, a real loud explosion,'' he said. ''I thought the house behind us blew up or something.''

D'Andrea jumped the fence to get over to the crash site. The pilot and the two copilots were already out, so he helped keep people away.

''It was totally engulfed,'' he said. ''It was exploding everywhere.''

Robert Chruszczyk was on his way home from his job as an IT specialist with the Department of Homeland Security.

He said the plane seemed to simply appear in the middle of the street in front of him.

''It was a ball of fire. I thought it was a tanker truck on fire.''

Tim Schmelzer, aviation professor at Miami-Dade Community College, said the DC-3 is a ''sturdy reliable plane.''

''I'd say the pilots were very professional and were very skillful to land it in that narrow street.'' The plane has a wide wing-span which would have helped it come in slow. ''It is a true test of the pilot's skill,'' Schmelzer said. ''Anytime a plane crashes in the city and everyone survives, it is a miracle.''

Herald staff writers Erika Bolstad, Sara Olkon, Kevin Deustch, Ashley Fantz and Nikki Waller, and staff researcher Monika Z. Leal, contributed to this report.

Distributed by the Associated Press

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