A twin-engine airplane carrying 11 sky-divers crash-landed in a wheat field shortly after taking off from St. Mary's County Airport yesterday morning, narrowly missing several homes and bursting into flames just after all aboard had escaped.
"I tell you, if that door would have jammed, there is no doubt they would have all burned to death," said Trooper Michael A. Spaulding of the state police. "As soon as the plane hit, it started smoking. Just after they got out, it went up."
Three people, including the pilot, were slightly injured. The plane landed in the field off Clarkes Mill Road in Hollywood, about a mile from the airport.
Police said the plane, a Beechcraft Twin Air, took off from the airport at 11:30 a.m. with the 11 sky-divers and the pilot aboard. "Just after takeoff the pilot experienced an unknown mechanical problem," Trooper Spaulding said. "One of the engines started to sputter and the aircraft lost altitude."
The pilot, Lennart Bengt Tomasson, 24, of Lewisburg, N.C., managed to fly the plane several hundred yards over a small residential area toget it to the field. Police said the plane never got more than 500 feet off the ground.
"The sky-divers realized the aircraft was experiencing problems," Trooper Spaulding said. "They contemplated jumping out, but it was not high enough for them to use their equipment, so they stayed on for the ride."
Thomas Edward Wardlaw, 32, of the 11800 block Old Gunpowder Road, Beltsville, and Veronica Dale Moore, 35, of Ridge, in St. Mary's County, were released after treatment at St. Mary's Hospital. Mr. Tomasson was flown to Prince George's County General Hospital with facial injuries, and was released last night.
Police said the plane went up in flames just after the last of the sky divers tumbled out.
"I just saw people rolling out the back of the plane," said Scott Bowles, 18, who lives in a farmhouse on Clarkes Mill Road.
"I was sitting on my couch in the living room," said the young man's father, Lewis Bowles. "I was watching it through the window. It kept going up and cutting off. I went to my front door and it was landing in our field."
Mr. Bowles said the plane came within about 100 feet of the top of his house, also occupied by his wife, a 4-year-old son and his 72-year-old father.
Police could not provide a list of the other eight passengers. Trooper Spaulding said they were planning on jumping over the airport.
He said Mr. Tomasson had flown the plane to Maryland from Lewisburg Saturday as a replacement aircraft for a sky-diving mission. The trooper did not know what was wrong with the original airplane.