MONTGOMERY VILLAGE — Crews on Monday rescued the injured pilot and passenger of a small plane that crashed into a Maryland electricity transmission tower, knocking out power for tens of thousands of customers and leaving the aircraft dangling 10 stories off the ground.
The plane crashed into the tower that supports high-tension lines at around 5:40 p.m. Sunday and got stuck about 100 feet above the ground, Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said. The crash happened about a mile from the Montgomery County Airpark near Gaithersburg, northwest of Washington, D.C. It knocked out power in the surrounding area and caused Metrorail delays.
The plane hit the lines of one tower, then hit a second tower, Pepco President Donna Cooper said at a news conference on Monday afternoon.
Video from the scene showed numerous rescue personnel and vehicles surrounding the tower shortly after it happened. At the time of the crash, the conditions were misty and rainy, said Pete Piringer, a spokesperson for the county’s Fire & Rescue Service.
Piringer said the rescue was complicated by the fact that the lines were live when the plane hit.
Meanwhile, a 911 call taker stayed on the line with the pair for an extended period of time and rescuers then called them directly to give them periodic updates, Goldstein said.
“They were anxious,” Goldstein said of the pilot and passenger. “They were concerned about the stability of the aircraft, the stability of the aircraft remaining in the tower structure. They were disoriented to the severity of or the complexity of the circumstances.”
After electrical workers made sure it was safe to try to reach the pilot and passenger, who were in contact with authorities via cellphone and were anxious to be rescued, crews secured the plane to the tower at around 12:15 a.m. Monday and took the two to safety a few minutes later, officials said.
The State Police identified the pilot as Patrick Merkle, 65, of Washington, D.C., and the passenger as Janet Williams, 66, of Marrero, Louisiana. Both had serious but non-life-threatening injuries, and hypothermia set in while they waited to be rescued, Goldstein said. Their rescue was faster than anticipated since the pilot and passenger were able to assist, he said.
Both were taken to hospitals and their conditions had improved by Monday afternoon — one had been discharged and the other was in stable condition, Goldstein said. He could not say which person had been released.
The plane was later lowered to the ground revealing a crushed front end.
The single-engine Mooney M20J had departed from White Plains, New York, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement. The FAA, National Transportation Safety Board and Maryland State Police are investigating.
The utility Pepco reported that power was temporarily cut to about 120,000 customers in Montgomery County, but it was restored to most of them before the people were rescued. Around 11 p.m. Sunday 14 major intersections in the county were without power, but less than two hours later traffic signals were operating properly, county police said.
The county’s public school system closed its schools and offices Monday due to the outage’s impact on safety and school operations.