Plane crash search ends

Coast Guard unable to find man, woman in Ocean City waters

March 18, 2002|By Andrew A. Green and Lynn Anderson | Andrew A. Green and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Coast Guard officials said they have given up the search for a man and woman missing after a plane crash Friday near Ocean City that killed both of their spouses, and friends of the couples gathered yesterday at their Chester homes to help comfort the families.

Coast Guard spokesman Bill Barry said rescuers in boats and helicopters searched the waters off Ocean City for about 24 hours after the crash but were unable to find Columbus Leroy "Dutch" Swonger, the pilot of the single-engine Cessna 172, or Carlotta Schrup. Rescuers did recover the remains of Linda Swonger and Thomas Schrup.

"I'm not optimistic ... that anyone will be found alive," said Maryland State Police Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, who talked with Coast Guard officials yesterday.

Rouse said the search for wreckage had also been halted. As of Saturday, the largest piece of the plane located was a tire.

Dutch Swonger, 64, was a chief engineer on merchant ships, and Linda Swonger, 52, was an assistant principal at Wiley J. Bates Middle School in Annapolis. Tom Schrup, 63, worked for the Justice Department, and Carlotta Schrup, 55, was a supervising grant specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Stephen Schrup, Tom Schrup's son, said the family had gathered at the couple's home near the airport and hoped that Carlotta Schrup's body could be recovered soon. The pair were a happy couple, "attached at the hip," he said.

"They built their lives around friends, children and the church," Stephen Schrup said.

Both couples were members of Christ Church in Stevensville, and friends and family said the church was important to them.

"Both families have been very much involved in the life of the congregation for a long time," said the pastor, the Rev. James J. Shand. Sunday services were difficult for him and the congregants, he added.

The Swongers had two sons -- Jordan, 19, and Travis, 17 -- both of whom were members of the local volunteer fire department. Josh Ruby, a lifelong friend of the boys who considered the Swongers second parents, said volunteer firefighters were doing everything they could to help the family.

"Their whole family has given so much to the community. Now the community is giving back," he said.

Chester is on Kent Island, which was settled by the English in 1631. In recent years it has become a growing bedroom community for workers who use the Bay Bridge to commute to Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident. A spokeswoman with the FAA said investigators are hopeful that a piece of the plane's fuselage would be found so they can determine what happened.

"We expect to be on the scene tomorrow," said FAA spokeswoman Holly Baker, who is based in Atlantic City. "We will be more useful when we have the aircraft."

A pilot who was flying behind Swonger's plane as it approached Ocean City told rescue officials that he could tell something was wrong, Rouse said.

The eyewitness pilot tried to contact Swonger but was unsuccessful, Rouse said. "Subsequent to that, boom, the plane just went down," Rouse said. "It just took a nose dive."

Swonger was not required to file a flight plan, Rouse said.

Swonger's flight instructor, Dave Williams, said they were supposed to fly to Tennessee together Friday night, but they called off the trip because of bad weather there. Instead, Swonger told him he was taking his wife to Ocean City for dinner.

Williams said he and Swonger had practiced the approach to the Ocean City airport several times, and Swonger was well-qualified to make the flight. He said Swonger had several radio and global positioning navigation systems on board.

At the Bay Bridge Airport near Stevensville in Queen Anne's County, where Swonger was well-known, manager John Kirby said yesterday that pilots were upset by news of the crash.

"It hits us much more because we're such a tight group of pilots. We're a tight fraternity," he said.

Kirby said Swonger kept his 1984 Cessna in mint condition. "He was a thorough pilot," he said, adding that Swonger had rebuilt the plane after he'd bought it used.

Swonger had been a pilot for about five years, Kirby said, and had practiced flying at night.

Williams said Swonger had gone over his plane piece by piece last week to prepare for an inspection.

"The probability of mechanical failure was pretty slim," he said.

Kirby, who is a pilot and flying instructor, said pilots familiar with the Ocean City airport talk about a "black hole effect" that can confuse pilots, who must fly out over the Atlantic Ocean before doubling back to land at the runway.

Flying at night over dark water can be disorienting, Kirby said. "All you see is utter blackness, and some pilots can no longer [tell] where the water meets the sky," he said.

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