Familiar Drone Of Plane Reminds Family Of Fiery Tragedy

Aircraft Crashed Into House In 1989, Killing Young Son

June 18, 1991|By Donna Weaver | Donna Weaver,Contributing writer

Sometimes, the drone of a familiar airplane awakens Janice Beam.

It's a sound her mind can't erase.

"It's different than jets," Janice said, as she sat in the livingroom of her new Ferndale home. "I know nothing about jets, but I know that sound.

"When it takes off, sometimes it sounds like it's going to hit the house. It brings back the sound of ambulances. It justjars something in your body."

The sound belongs to Centre Airlines' twin-engine Beechcraft cargo plane. On July 19, 1989, an aircraft similar to that one slammed into the basement of the Beams' one-storybrick rancher after lifting off from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The crash killed the Beams' 6-month-old son, Paul, and the Centre Airlines pilot, 50-year-old Benjamin S. Vitalini of Leroy, N.Y. Janice and the rest of the family -- her husband, Ralph H. III; three sons and one daughter -- escaped the flames that demolished the house.

Since the crash, a new pilot has taken Vitalini's place, flying the same route over the Beams' new home, built on the site of the old one.

The Beams have lived in their two-story yellow colonial -- the only such home in a community full of ranchers -- since January.

"We originally moved here because it was convenient," saidJanice, 33. "It's right across the road from the boys' school (Arthur Slade Regional Catholic School). It's near where Ralph works. And it has a pretty large backyard."

Added Ralph: "Some friends called us fools. They just thought the memory would be too hard. But this ismore or less home."

Still, the family does think about the accident. It's a memory that would have haunted them even if they had movedsomeplace else.

"It took us a year before we finally really accepted (the tragedy)," Janice said. "Not only did we lose Paul, but we lost our home and all our belongings. There's life before and life after, but it's just not the same."

Even a new son, 6-month-old Michael, has not dispelled the heartache.

"He can't replace Paul," Janice said. "Actually, it's been very difficult. The pregnancy was difficult. The delivery was difficult. It just brings everything back."

Ralph and Janice remember every detail of that fateful morning. "It's like everything was in slow motion," Janice recalled.

She was awakened by Paul's crying. She fed him his bottle and placed him back in his crib, in a bedroom with Benjamin, now 4, and Dana, now 6. She was in the bathroom when she heard a plane coming in low.

"When I realized the plane was coming full-barrel at us, I put my arm over my head and closed my eyes," said Janice.

The crash caused the bathroom floor to collapse, sending Janice into the basement.

"I was amazed that I was still alive," she recalled. "It was quiet. Then I yelled for Ralph to get the kids. I could look in and see a small flame."

By the time she had scrambled out of the house and ran around thefront, the entire house was engulfed in flames. The two oldest sons,Ralph, now 11, and Joshua, now 8, escaped through a hole in their bedroom wall.

But the smoke was so thick that Janice couldn't reach through a bedroom window to grab the other children. "It was like a huge fan was blowing the smoke out," she said.

Ralph managed to grab Dana, 6, and Benjamin, 4. But he couldn't find Paul. Firefighters found his body three hours later.

To emphasize their point about the crash's devastation, Ralph played taped news reports of the accident. He even showed a neighbor's videotapes of the fire.

"There's hon's corner," Ralph, 35, said, pointing to part of a brick wall. That was where Janice would feed Paul.

Janice said the family replays the tapes occasionally to remind themselves about the crash.

A strong faith has kept the Beams from completely falling apart, especiallyafter losing Ralph's mother, Jane, last September, and his niece, Caroline, in December.

"If we didn't believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that someday we'd all be together again, I don't know what we'd do," Janice said.

The family is not angry or bitter. They carry no animosity against Vitalini.

"I felt sorry for him and his widow," Ralph said. "At least we were there participating. That's one thing. But just getting a phone call must have been hard."

The family even delivered Vitalini's wedding ring to his widow shortly after the crash. Ralph's father, Ralph Jr., discovered the ring while sifting through the crash debris and returned it to the woman while visiting an air show in New York.

The Beams, however, are puzzled over the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the crash. The NTSB concluded that a fire under a side-control panel caused the accident. It did not, however, determine what caused the fire, although investigators noted that a citizens' band radio was improperly connected to the aircraft's electrical system.

"This was really weak," Ralph said. "A lot of things could have happened, and they just came up with one possibility? Maybe they could have saved some lives if they would have come out with some answers."

Ralph, a licensed pilot, has his own explanation.

"I think the starter remained engaged," hesaid. When that happens, the starter motor acts as a generator, making electricity and eventually causing its wires to overheat.

Ralphsaid something similar happened to him once. Luckily, he smelled thesmoke and shut off the engine. But Vitalini's engines were located outside the plane.

"He couldn't smell the burning wires," Ralph theorized.

NTSB spokesman Mike Benson said he didn't know whether investigators had considered such a possibility. "We consider a lot of theories, but we only come up with causes that are based on the evidence," he said.

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