Maryland plane rescue: How crews brought two to safety after crash

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Firefighter John Lann knew when he arrived on the scene that the rescue would be a unique experience. About 100 feet above him in the wet darkness of Sunday night, a small plane was wedged into a power line tower with two people trapped inside.

“Cool … we’re showing off our skills,” Lann, a lieutenant with the Montgomery County Fire Department’s technical rescue team, said Wednesday while recounting the rescue. “We’re going to show what we can do.”

But Lann also thought of the injured pilot and passenger stranded in frigid temperatures aboard an unstable plane shifting in the wind. The specialist unit’s rescue would eventually go according to plan – but that moment was still hours away.

Firefighters and other personnel recalled Wednesday the hours of intricate decision-making that preceded a harrowing rescue. Unprecedented for such an operation, emergency crews drove through dark streets as part of the rescue effort and developed new plans to bring the plane’s occupants to safety, all while people across the country watched developments unfold.

The single-engine Mooney M20J crashed into power lines about 18 miles north of Washington around 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Pilot Patrick Merkle, 66, and passenger Janet Williams, 65, would not be rescued until after midnight.

For rescuers working out a plan on the ground Sunday, the most obvious danger was the electricity flowing through the power lines, but they also had to weigh whether the plane would fall or whether the tower might collapse. While his flight was buffeted by wind, an injured Merkle told a 911 dispatcher about 20 minutes after the crash that he thought he could crawl out.

Pilot, passenger rescued after plane becomes entangled in power lines in Maryland

“You’re going to be electrocuted,” the dispatcher warned, urging Merkle to stay inside the plane.

Since the small plane was too high for fire department equipment to reach, rescuers considered climbing at least part of the way up the tower and devising a system to pull the two people out.

But it was up to Logan McGrane, another firefighter lieutenant to draw up a plan.

Listen to 911 calls made by pilot Patrick Merkle, who crashed a small plane into power lines in Montgomery County on Nov. 27. (Video: Montgomery County Police)

The first indication of something wrong occurred when the power went out in McGrane’s fire station. He texted his battalion chief, who said other fire stations were also suddenly without power. McGrane’s team was then called in to rescue Merkle and Williams, who drove 20 minutes through dark Montgomery Village neighborhoods. In total, 120,000 Pepco customers lost power for hours.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and says an official cause likely won’t be known for months. Merkle was flying from White Plains, NY, to the Montgomery County Airpark when the crash happened about a mile from his destination. In 911 recordings, he told the dispatcher that he was searching for the airport in the poor visibility, “then apparently I dropped a little lower than I should have.”

NTSB officials have transported the plane from the scene for further investigation.

By the time McGrane arrived Sunday evening, authorities had already established regular phone contact with Merkle and Williams. McGrane said he began breaking down different segments of the rescue operation: find out if the tower is compromised, secure the plane to the tower, gain access to the plane.

While fire department equipment could not reach the plane, crews considered whether bucket trucks operated by a utility contractor could reach that height, carry enough weight and have a safe place to attach a life harness.

“We all stood together and we talked about everything you can imagine,” McGrane said.

Until the utility could stop electricity from flowing through the lines and remove the threat of electric shock — even built-up static electricity could be deadly, McGrane said — rescuers’ next steps were limited.

Pete Pedersen, Pepco’s chief of emergency services, said utility crews were dispatched almost immediately after the crash. In the early moments, it was not clear that a plane has crashed into the company’s infrastructure.

“Our operators in our control center could tell that obviously something had happened,” he said. “We didn’t know exactly why, but we could tell we had an outage in our system.”

‘Please hurry’: In 911 call, pilot in plane crash in Md.

Utility crews knocked off the tower and Pedersen went to the scene, where he said he found a “pretty intense environment” as first responders and utility workers coordinated the rescue. More than three dozen utility workers were involved, including some from AUI Power, the contractor operating the dump trucks McGrane hoped to use for the rescue.

Getting the dump trucks from north of Baltimore to the site was its own logistical challenge. Such heavy equipment is normally required to stop at weigh stations on Interstate 95, but state police allowed the trucks to bypass that requirement. Montgomery County officers provided an escort as the trucks pulled along Route 200 and Interstate 270 into Gaithersburg.

At the site, the trucks had difficulty moving in the wet ground and had to be towed twice.

Lann and Luke Marlowe, another member of the rescue team who is also a paramedic, entered the metal bucket at the end of the truck’s long boom and began the slow ascent to the plane. Marlowe said he was eager to use his skills.

“I wanted to go, you know. That’s what we train for,” he said. “And since I was also a doctor, they said, ‘You have to go with them so you can see their status.'”

Lann said he knew the power lines had been disabled, but ducked when they got within a foot of him. As Merkle and Williams watched from inside the plane, Lann, Marlowe, and an employee of the power company began securing the plane to the tower.

With that stabilized, they were ready to pull Merkle and Williams to safety.

Federal investigation underway into plane crash that hit power lines in Maryland

Marlowe put Williams in a harness first, then bucketed her.

“Surprisingly, she seemed okay,” Marlowe said. “I mean, sure, we can’t see what’s going on internally, but she was able to communicate with me.”

Lann said Merkle tried to follow immediately, but had to wait 11 agonizing minutes for rescuers to take Williams to the ground and return. Soon he too was on his way to a hospital. In an interview Tuesday, Merkle said it was “absolutely a miracle” that he and Williams were alive.

Merkle was released from the hospital on Monday. Authorities have said Williams’ condition is improving, although Suburban Hospital officials said Wednesday she remained in intensive care.

“Our plan A worked,” Marlowe said. “We had a great result.”

Marlowe returned to his fire station around 2 Monday. With several hours left on his watch, he left quickly was sent out on another call.

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