Two people who were trapped and “dangling” from their small plane over live power lines were rescued in a “herculean effort” Sunday night.
A passenger and pilot were inside the Mooney Mike 20P single engine plane when it crashed at around 5:30 p.m., Maryland State Police confirmed. Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service spokesman Pete Piringer, who was at the scene, said units arrived on the scene to find the aircraft suspended approximately 100 feet in the air. Weather conditions were not ideal at the time, and for some reason the plane came into contact with some wires and ended up colliding with a tower, he said.
The crash site is approximately four miles northwest of the Montgomery County Airpark.
It took more than six hours to reach the pair, but by midnight, the surrounding lines had been “de-energized” and authorities could safely access the plane.
A fire crew was able to make contact, securing the aircraft to the tower at 12:16 a.m. By 12:25 a.m., the first person was down. The second came down at 12:36 a.m, Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said in a late night press conference.
Both were transported from the scene with hypothermia and orthopedic injuries. The injuries didn’t appear to be life-threatening, Goldstein said, but were “traumatic.”
The pilot was identified as Patrick Merkle, 65, of Washington, D.C. The passenger is Jan Williams, 66, of Louisiana. For hours, the pair was “dangling about 100 feet in the air” while the lines were “still energized.
“They’re in a very precarious situation given the fact they are dangling about 100 feet up,” Piringer said earlier.
As the rescue effort passed midnight, Piringer said the pair were “anxious to get out of that plane. They have been very patient through all of this.”
Goldstein said in an update that authorities had been contacting the pair via cellphone at intervals to conserve the devices’ batteries. The pair were initially communicating through a 911 dispatcher, relaying messages, until authorities transitioned to contacting them directly.
Area roads were closed as authorities attempted to come up with a plan to remove the plane.
Most of the power in the area had been restored after tens of thousands of people suffered power outages, which utilities confirmed were the result of the crash. Pepco said in a statement that up to 120,000 customers were affected.
“Our crews continue to work closely with Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services in an effort to support emergency responders at the scene. The transmission lines are currently deenergized,” the company said.
Along with homes, schools, hospitals and shopping malls, the outage also affected traffic lights, signals, elevators, and the Metro. A number of schools were closed Monday due to the widespread outages.
Goldstein said earlier that safety concerns had prevented crews from rescuing the pilot and passenger.
One of the main issues, he said, was that there was no other way to determine whether it was safe to access the tower until it was grounded, or “bonded”—which means crews had to go up to the wires themselves and put clamps or cables onto them to ensure there was no static electricity or residual power.
“We are taking measured and risk-balanced steps to approach this activity and will be doing this in manner where we will aim to extricate these folks out of the plane,” Goldstein said.
Witnesses described a frightening scene Sunday as the plane crashed.
“I heard a crash noise and there was a flash and the power flickered,” one witness, a county employee, posted on Twitter.
“I didn’t think anything of it until I saw multiple patrol cars drive by priority followed by a ton of fire rescue. So you know I did what any off-duty 911 person did and texted a friend who’s at work.”
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration will conduct investigations into how and why the crash occurred, police said.