A small plane that crashed shortly after taking off from Suburban Airport in Laurel Monday evening narrowly missed a road packed with commuters and a bike path that connects Maryland City to a nearby park.
A volunteer fire chief said that if the plane had not hit a century-old, 40-foot tree, cushioning the impact, the pilot and student aboard the two-seater might have died.
"There were people driving right underneath the plane as it was crashing," said Ray Smallwood, the fire chief for the Maryland City volunteer fire station. "If it wasn't for that tree, we would probably have two deaths. And the way fuel spilled onto the wings, we probablywould have had a major catastrophe."
The single-engine Piper Tomahawk plane, which took off at 5:19 p.m., climbed to about 300 feet before crashing just north of the airport in an empty lot, about a half-mile from the runway and only 12 feet from Brockbridge Road.
Sharon Lynn Meigs, a student pilot with only 11 hours of recorded flying time, was trapped in the wreckage and suffered severe facial cuts. Smallwood said her head hit the instrument panel and her legs were pushed underneath the dash.
Meigs, 36, was flown to Prince George's County Medical Center trauma unit, where she was listed in stable condition yesterday.
Her instructor, John Douglas Witzig, 24, of Elkridge, was treated and released from Greater Laurel-Beltsville Hospital.
Smallwood said Witzig was sitting in the field near the airplane when the first firefighters arrived. "He was pretty shaken up," Smallwood said.
Witzig could not be reached for comment yesterday. A county police report says Witzig told the investigating officer that the plane "just fell out of the sky. I do not want to say anything until I speak with the (National Transportation Safety Board). This couldbe my career."
NTSB officials were on the scene of the crash yesterday morning, examining wreckage and trying to determine a cause. Beverley Johnson, an air safety specialist, said the investigation centers on the engine, which apparently failed.
"The instructor tried to restart the engine," she said, adding that officials will have to take the engine apart before an exact cause can be determined. She said a preliminary report should be ready by next week; a final report could take several months.
County police and NTSB officials said the plane is operated by Suburban Airservice Inc., which runs out of the airport. It is owned by Glenn I. Altman, who gives his address as Suburban Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration says. The school is certified by the FAA.
Smallwood, who also is president of theMaryland City Civic Association, said there have been numerous accidents at the airport in the past 20 years, including one in 1989 in which a single-engine plane made an emergency landing on nearby Route 198.
But Smallwood said airport officials have worked with MarylandCity to ensure that planes don't take off over homes and that trees cut down to make way for flight paths were replanted elsewhere. "Theyseem to be very cooperative with the local community," he said.