ELIZABETHTON — Crash investigator Russ Standifur with the Federal Aviation Administration was on the scene in a remote section of Holston Mountain on Wednesday, trying to recover all the pieces of the crashed plane and the puzzle of why it crashed shortly after take off from the Elizabethton Municipal Airport on Tuesday evening.
The good news is that there are three witnesses to help with putting the puzzle together. All three occupants of the Cessna 172 survived, and after two were listed in critical condition at the time they were rescued, all were rapidly recovering and are now in stable condition. The pilot was identified as Scott Miller of Orrville, Ohio. His passengers were Andrea Denning of Dalton, Ohio and her 15-year-old boy. His identity was not released.
The boy was the least seriously injured in the crash and investigators have interviewed him, but Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes said the boy had just settled down in the back seat to take a nap and was not aware the plane was in trouble until he heard his mother scream. He rose up just as the plane crashed into a large tree and fall to the ground.
Mathes said the evidence shows the engine was running at the time of the tree because the propeller took large slices out of the tree the plane hit.
Mathes said the flight began in Charleston, S.C. and the plane was headed for Akron, Ohio. He said the plane was running low on fuel as it crossed the mountains. The sheriff said the pilot first landed the plane in Mountain City, but found he could not get fuel there, so he headed to Elizabethton around 6:30 p.m.
Mathes said records show the pilot paid for 31 gallons of fuel at 7:08 p.m. and took off shortly after that, heading northeast towards Holston Mountain.
The sheriff said 911 received a cell phone call from the boy in the plane at 7:31, reporting the crash.
Dwain Rowe, corporate director of Wings Air Rescue, said the Carter County Rescue Squad requested assistance from Wings a few minutes later, requesting assistance in the search. Within five minutes, pilot Steve Lewis, a flight nurse and a paramedic had launched the helicopter.
Rowe said the helicopter crew had several advantages not always available in a search. First, the cell phone call to 911 had been triangulated, giving Lewis some good coordinates to begin the search. He flew to that point.
Some other advantages were that it was still daylight when the helicopter reached the coordinates and it was still winter, which meant there were no leaves on the trees to block the view.
Rowe said Lewis concentrated on flying the helicopter while the other personnel in the plane searched the ground for the crash site. They found the crash site on the first flyover and radioed their finding to the ground search crews.
The helicopter then remained on the scene as night fell, pinpointing the crash site for ground crews struggling in the dark through rugged and steep terrain and hacking through laurel thickets.
The ground crews took one of the most direct approaches to the crash site. Using all-terrain vehicles, they took Bernie Lewis Road, a spur road off the Stoney Creek Highway just past Unaka High School. The road ends at a Verizon cell tower. At the end of Bernie Lewis Road, the crews took an old logging trace to Cannon Place Gap. It was a 3-mile slog because of the rugged, steep terrain and dense vegetation. Even then, they couldn’t take the ATV’s all the way to the crash site because of a steep drop for the last 300 yards. That could only be negotiated by foot, which meant any victims who could not walk would have the carried up the steep cliff in a Stokes basket stretcher.
The first rescuer into the site was James Heaton, a volunteer with the Carter County Rescue Squad and an employee of the Tennessee Division of Forestry. Heaton and a partner walked all the way from a different entry point and reached the crashed plane at 9:30. A veteran of plane crash rescues, Heaton tried to prepare his partner for a gruesome scene.
When he got there, he was more than pleased to find the pilot and the boy were walking around. He was much less happy with the strong smell around the crash site. There was fuel and its frightening smell everywhere and it was a strong smell.
“I was careful not to make a spark,” Heaton said. He helped everyone move further away from the plane.
Because he walked in, he did not have a lot of medical supplies and equipment with him, but he treated the victims as best as he could and radioed to the rest of the rescue operation what he had found. Things quickly got worse, with the condition of the ambulatory man quickly deteriorating, until he could no longer walk. The temperatures on the mountain also got colder as it got later.
Efforts were made to speed up the rescue. Attempts were made to contact a rescue helicopter that could lift the victims out. None were found. A request was also made to the Forest Service to bring bulldozers to the site to help clear the trail. That requests was answered.
Finally, the rescue team reached the crash and began preparing to evacuate the victims.
The first steps out were the hardest. With two patents in two Stokes baskets, the rescuers had to carry them up and up and up the steep, almost vertical, 300 yards to the ATV’s. In the dark, it seemed a lot longer.
“We used 12 people,” Capt. Mike Little of the Carter County Sheriff’s Department said. “We had six carrying for a time and then the other six would take over so they could get some rest.
There was another challenge when the finally struggled to the top. ATV’s are not designed to carry litters.
Sheriff Mathes said fortunately his department has a Can Am Rotax 1000. It is a two seater with a small truck bed. “We placed the basket in the bed and secured it so it wouldn’t move around,” Mathe said. Then Capt. Patrick Johnson of the sheriff’s department and a Rescue Squad medic walked along side to provide more support as the ATV drove out at 3 mph. This had to be done twice to get both victims out. When both were finally brought out at 5 a.m., Johnson said he was worn out. As a reward, he was able to go home and get some rest until he had to be back to work at 10 a.m.
Experienced rescuers said there were an amazing number of things that went right. First, there was the cell phone call which gave the rescuers an accurate fix on the location of the crash scene. “There is no question that cell phone call saved lives,” Mathes said. Not only did it provide their location, he said they may not have been reported missing for a few days because pilots often stop to spend the night while heading home.
The weather was mild and dry for this time of year. It was late winter, so the leaves were not out, making it easier to spot the crash. It was also a full moon, helping the crews during the nighttime operation.
Another miracle was that the plane, which had just filled with fuel, did not explode or burn on impact.
The result was a rescue that everyone could feel proud about. The many hours of training and hard work had paid off.