The crash engulfed two homes in flames, killing three people on the ground, including two children, as well as the plane’s pilot and sole passenger.
One witness told a Herald photographer the twin-engine aircraft approached from the east (coming from the direction of Lake Monroe) and clipped some trees, leaving debris on the roof of at least one home along the section of Wilson Bay Court that runs perpendicular to the houses devastated by the plane’s impact.
The pilot of the plane then managed to avoid the first two homes at the eastern end of WillowBay Ridge Street before crashing into to one or both of the two homes located at 354 and 356 WillowBay Ridge Street. An investigation is now underway as to what took place before and during the crash.
“The pilot was in contact with the Orlando tower just prior the accident,” Sanford deputy Police Chief Darrel Presley explained during a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “They did report smoke in the cockpit. Subsequent to that they were apparently attempting to come into the Sanford Airport. They obviously didn’t make it that far and crashed here at the edge of Lake Monroe.”
The impact of the crash and the fire resulting from the spilled aviation fuel engulfed both homes in flames. According to Sanford Fire Department Fire Investigator Matt Minnetto, SFD received a call at 8:36 a.m. and arrived on the scene within 6 minutes.
The Sanford Fire Department received assistance from the Seminole County Fire Department, the Lake Mary Fire Department, the Sanford Police department and other agencies, including the Red Cross.
Seminole County Sheriff’s Office Alert 1 helicopter circled high above the scene, keeping a close watch on the situation below while numerous news helicopters shot aerial footage of the tragedy.
Janice Joseph, 24, and her 6-month old son Joseph Woodard perished in their home at 356 WillowBay Ridge Street. The boy’s father, Joseph Louis Woodard, 30, was not home at the time of the accident but arrived at the horrific scene a short time later.
Gabriela Dechat, 4, perished in her home at 354 WillowBay Ridge Street. An off-duty Lake Mary Firefighter Ryan Cooper entered the Dechat’s home and helped rescue 36-year old Peter Dechat and the couple’s 10-year-old son.
Peter was airlifted to Orlando Regional Medical Center and is reported to be in critical condition. The 10-year-old boy, whose name is being withheld until relatives can be notified, was airlifted to the burn center at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati.
Witnesses reported seeing the badly burned boy emerge from the house wearing only his underwear. Officials said the boy suffered burns on 80 to 90 percent of his body.
The boy’s mother, 33-year-old Milagros Dechat, known as “Millie” to her friends, was also transported to Orlando Regional Medical Center. She was reported to be conscious and speaking.
According to Presley, all residents in the two homes have been accounted for. He said two homes were slightly damaged by debris from the crash, but none of the neighboring homes suffered fire damage.
“It could have been a lot worse,” Presley acknowledged. “The fire department was on scene very rapidly.”
While praising the firefighters’ gallant efforts, the deputy police chief said, “Notice how close these lot lines are; the houses immediately to the east and immediately to the west of the two houses that were engulfed [in flames] have no fire damage to them. I think that speaks very highly of the fire department’s initial response and their decision on how to fight the fire to prevent it from spreading to these other structures.”
Presley went to say that Tuesday’s plane crash was the only one in the Sanford area he could recall as having resulted in additional casualties on the ground.
Vanessa Jackson and her three children live only two houses away from the crash scene. She was at work Tuesday morning while her children (aged 17, 15 and 5) were home alone. She rushed home after receiving a phone call from one of her children.
“That was a close call,” Jackson said. “My kids would have been upstairs and they would have been gone.”
Jackson was told one of her neighbors heard screaming from the Dechat home and attempted to rescue 4-year-old Gabriela.
“He ran in there but the smoke was too thick and the little girl stopped screaming after a while,” Jackson said.
While waiting for law enforcement officials to allow her back inside her home, Jackson said she was puzzled as to why the pilot didn’t attempt to land the plane somewhere other than a heavily populated neighborhood.
One theory is that the pilot was making a last ditch effort to land the plane in the adjacent backyards that separate the homes on the WillowBay Ridge and those parallel to them on Wilson Bay Court.
Another person at the scene questioned why the pilot did not set the endangered plane down in Lake Monroe.
Port Orange resident Michael Klemm piloted the Cessna 310 twin-engine aircraft plane on its fatal flight. The 56-year-old Klemm was an employee of NASCAR Aviation. The plane was registered to Competitor Liaison Bureau Inc. in Daytona Beach, a subsidiary company of NASCAR registered to William C. France, the former NASCAR chairman who passed away in June.
France’s son-in-law, 54-year-old Dr. Bruce Kennedy was the sole passenger aboard the aircraft, making a widow of Lesa France Kennedy a month after her famous father’s passing.
FAA investigators were on hand Tuesday afternoon conducting a preliminary investigation. National Transportation Safety Board investigators dispatched from Virginia were expected to be on the crash scene by 7 p.m. Tuesday evening to begin their investigation.
Tuesday afternoon crisis teams and victim’s advocates from the Seminole County Sheriff’s office began passing out information to residents and announced they will soon be scheduling meetings in an effort to help provide counseling for residents of the neighborhood as they deal with their grief.
In describing the events of the day, Deputy Chief Presley said, “It was horrific. It was just a horrific scene. Even though it’s a new community, clearly some of the neighbors were friends and knew the families affected very well so there’s some shared grief there.”
Earlier that day, Pina Kaplan, who lives on the 200 block of WillowBay Ridge Street, expressed gratitude as she discussed what transpired in her neighborhood that morning.
“I just think it could have been anyone of us,” Kaplan said. “I just hug my kids and my husband and I thank God we’re OK. The community needs to stick together now. We need to do something too for these people to help them out and get their lives back together again.”