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Community cloaked in darkness after small plane crashes into power line, tower

by Judith Hruz

Editor

Shortly after 5:30 on the evening of Nov. 27, as families were eating the final leftovers from their holiday weekend and others were packing to head home from Thanksgiving visits, the community went dark.

Social media began lighting up: “We have no power in our neighborhood. Anyone else?”

Turns out it was a lot of neighborhoods – some 120,000 customers, according to utility company Pepco.

Then the speculation began: “Did a transformer blow?” Or, “Is there a storm somewhere?” Or, guess there was a car crash somewhere.”

It was, indeed, a crash, but not a car. A small airplane, en route from New York to Gaithersburg and about a mile, as the crow flies, from its the Montgomery County Airpark, crashed into utility lines and then a utility pole.

Paul Jackson, who had just left his friends’ house in Olney,  where he had spent the weekend, was traveling in the vicinity of the ash at Goshen Road and Rothbury Drive in Montgomery Village, said he got to that point just after the crash.

“I could not believe what I was seeing,” he told The Greater Olney News. “At first, before all of the emergency vehicles started zooming to the site, I thought it didn’t look real.”

Jackson, who has worked on movie sets as an actor, said it looked like a scene from a movie.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said. “The plane was just dangling there.”

Several days later, long after the pilot and passenger were safe and healing and the plane was brought to the ground, few could believe that the incident had such a satisfactory ending considering what happened.

The plane dangled approximately 100 feet from the ground with the pilot and passenger inside until they were retrieved close to 12:30 a.m., Montgomery County Fire and Rescue spokesman Pete Piringer said.

“They were banged up because of the crash, but OK,” he said during a press conference the next day.

Both suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries, said Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Goldstein. He said hypothermia had set in while they waited for seven hours to be pulled from the plane.

The two were released from the hospital within a day or two of the incident.

Maryland State Police identified them as pilot Patrick Merkle, 65, of Washington, D.C., and passenger Janet Williams, 66, of Marrero, La.

Goldstein said the plane was lowered to the ground just before 4 a.m. Monday, Nov. 28, where it stayed until Nov. 29 so that investigators from the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) could get to the site.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) identified the single-engine plane as a Mooney M20J and said it left White Plains, N.Y., headed for Gaithersburg.

The NTSB had not released its investigation findings by press time. The FAA and Maryland State Police are also investigating.

Pepco Region President Donna Cooper said electricity was restored to customers around the county by 11:50 that night.

Pepco was able to reroute power because of “redundancy built into our system,” she said.

Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) reported that approximately 125 traffic signal lights also were without power.

Goldstein and other officials said that although they have never had an incident exactly like this one, and that there is no official instruction manual for what they had to do to rescue the passengers, they are thrilled with the expertise and cooperation that resulted in a positive outcome.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, assistant chief administrative officer, said the biggest take-away from the incident is that “relationships matter.”

He said there is extensive training on plane crashes and tower rescues, and that rescuers and utility crews came together and applied elements of everything they have learned.

Stoddard said the relationships, built long in advance of the incident, were “absolutely critical” in the successful rescue

“There is no substitute for that,” he said.

County Executive Marc Elrich called the crash and rescue a “unique and complicated” experience.”

He thanked Pepco and the first responders, who were “at their very best.”

County Councilman Gabe Albornoz (D-At large) thanked the first responders for their “absolutely and extraordinarily tirelessness work on saving the pilot and passenger” and thanked Pepco for “quickly restoring the power to thousands.”

Nearly a week after the crash, the community was still talking about the crash and recovery.

“This is the best possible outcome we could have,” Piringer said.

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