A bustling suburban neighborhood abutting Baltimore-Washington International Airport got a stark reminder of the dangers of living at the edge of a busy airfield yesterday when a small cargo plane crashed there, narrowly missing homes, residents on their way to work and children being dropped off at school.
Federal investigators are trying to determine the cause of the crash, which killed the pilot, Thomas F. Lennon, 34, of Drexel Hill, Pa.
Witnesses said the twin-engine turboprop plane was descending toward the airport when it clipped trees, shearing off its wings, and plunged from the sky.
Several residents said they thought the pilot was trying to avoid hitting homes in the Ferndale neighborhood of Anne Arundel County, something investigators could not confirm.
"That guy was a complete hero," said Jamie McElroy, 35, who watched the plane crash from her driveway across the street. "He knew he was going down, and he made sure he did not actually hit a house. How he had the presence of mind to do that, I don't know."
Tracy Newman, a BWI spokeswoman, agreed, saying "It's obvious it took some skill to get that plane down the way he did."
Others said the plane appeared to be out of control as it wobbled across the sky.
Lennon was pronounced dead at the scene. Officials said he was flying alone in a Mitsubishi MU-2B operated by Epps Air Service Inc. of Atlanta. It was carrying canceled checks and financial documents from Philadelphia for the Baltimore branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va.
The plane hit vehicles and splintered a boat stored in a yard, its fuselage landing about 15 feet from a resident's front door.
The resident declined to comment.
"It is a miracle that others on the ground were not hurt," said Maryland State Police Maj. Greg Shipley.
The crash occurred in an older neighborhood of brick homes and ranchers along the eastern edge of the airport. Residents have long lived with the noise and risks of airplane traffic, as well as with the memory of another cargo plane crash, about a mile away, that killed an infant 15 years ago.
Several Ferndale residents said the crash didn't give them pause about living next to the fast-growing airport.
"You know they [crash], but what are you going to do? Sell your house? I'm too old to make any changes," said Walter Clark, 70.
BWI's Newman said the crash shouldn't alarm nearby residents. "It's an isolated incident. People shouldn't be concerned," she said.
The plane was approaching the airport about 7:25 a.m. when it struck the trees, crashed into a driveway and broke apart, scattering wreckage about 300 feet and causing at least one fire.
Witnesses did not report seeing or hearing anything unusual until the plane appeared to be in trouble. Many in the neighborhood watched the crash, horrified, and soon afterward gaped at the twisted wreckage strewn about a tidy community that reeked of spilled fuel. Fire crews coated the scene with foam and spent the day cleaning up the fuel.
Barry Lear Jr. of Jernigan and Trott Concrete Pumping of Hanover, saw the plane come in as he was preparing to install a pool across the street from the crash site.
"The wings were straight up and down, and then it hit a tree in the back yard," Lear said. "After it hit the tree, it became a ball of fire. Pieces flew across the street. There was a crashing and grinding noise as the propeller hit the tree."
Shortly after 7 a.m., Wolfgang W. Halbig, a school security consultant, was standing near the parking lot at North County High School in Ferndale, watching parents drop off their children and students step off school buses.
Classes began at 7:17 a.m. About 7:22 a.m., Halbig saw what he described as an unbelievable sight.
"Off by the tree line, I see an airplane flying very low. ... It came right over the parent drop-off area," he said. "It was directly over them. ... I mean, I could see the underbelly."
The plane's path took it between the high school and nearby Hilltop Elementary School, whose pupils arrived an hour later. It buzzed over athletic fields and the parking area, headed toward a red-checkered tower on the western edge of the school's property and banked sharply to the left, Halbig said.
The plane then veered to the right before jerking back to the left again, and then suddenly dived toward the ground. Halbig lost sight of it but then saw a cloud of black smoke rise into the sky. He and his two employees drove over to the scene, where emergency crews had already arrived.
"He [the pilot] had to see all those kids and parents," Halbig said. "And if he knew, then he did a great job. He went straight down; he didn't hurt other people."
The crash just missed McElroy, who watched in terror as the plane came toward her and crashed across the street, about 50 feet from where she had just pulled into her driveway.
"I heard a rumble. I looked behind me. It was a low rumble," she said.
"I saw the nose of an airplane, just like in the movies, and it was coming at me. I was turned in my seat."
McElroy said she initially feared that the plane had hit the house across the street but realized it had not. She said it appeared that the plane hit the driveway of the house and skidded a short distance into a boat parked there, sending broken wood into the air.
The plane then appeared to strike a green pickup truck in the driveway, turning it nearly halfway around, she said.
The plane broke apart, and she saw flames and smoke.
A 6-foot-long piece flew overhead and landed a few feet from the Pontiac Grand Am that she and her fiance bought recently.
"There is jet fuel all over our front yard and driveway. There are pieces of the plane just everywhere," her fiance, Joe Vogel, said shortly after the crash.
JoAnn Marshall was lying in bed waiting for her radio to come on when she heard "this terrible sound.
"It's hard to describe, like something really heavy hitting concrete," said Marshall, who lives a few doors down Ferndale Road from the crash site. She said she ran out back and saw her neighbor's back yard engulfed in two balls of flame.
She said the fire burned for only a few minutes but left a lingering odor of jet fuel.
Children, some at home and some waiting for school buses, also saw the crash.
Nine-year-old Heather Miller was making her bed when she heard a loud whoosh, "like someone speeding down the road."
She looked out the window of her home on Sunlight Circle just in time to see the airplane clear the roof of her neighbor's house by a few feet. "It was going sideways like that," she said, twisting her hand in a flip-flopping motion.
Some homes sustained minor damage, said Division Chief John Scholz of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.
"We were fortunate on many counts," Scholz said. "We were fortunate no houses were hit, and we were extremely fortunate there were no casualties."
Paul Cox, an investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board who arrived at the scene early yesterday afternoon said he plans to inspect the wreckage and review radio transmissions and other records over the next several days. He declined to say whether the pilot was in radio contact with air traffic controllers just before the crash.
The Mitsubishi MU-2 is a cargo plane with a lengthy record of 183 accidents causing almost 200 deaths over the past 36 years.
NTSB investigators are likely to focus on why the plane could not stay airborne, said Ladd Sanger, an aviation lawyer from Dallas who has settled three lawsuits involving the aircraft.
"They are going to be looking at the ability of the pilot to deploy the aircraft's flaps," he said. "They are going to be looking at power issues to determine if one or both of the engines were capable of deploying power, and they are going to be looking at the propellers."
The plane crashed as many in the neighborhood were heading out their doors, said Sharon Henn, who lives diagonally across the street from the crash site.
"In this neighborhood we all leave just past 7:30 a.m.," she said. "We all pull out around the same time, with our little ones. We usually have to watch so we don't hit each other.
"It could have been a lot more tragic than it was."
Betty Bittner, who has lived in the neighborhood for about 50 years, agreed, saying, "This guy had to have had God as a co-pilot, too. When you think of the schools he flew over, it's a miracle."
Sun staff writers Gus G. Sentementes and Molly Knight contributed to this article.