Small plane crashed into Fla. houses, 5 killed

By April Hunt
The Sun-Sentinel 
SANFORD, Fla. A six-month old and a toddler were among three people killed in their own homes this morning when a small plane struggling to make an emergency landing at Orlando Sanford International Airport plowed into a house and ignited a fireball that consumed two homes.

Two people on the plane also died, and the parents and older brother of the 4-year-old girl who died suffered critical burns in the fiery scene at the Preserve at Lake Monroe.

Officials survey the damage to a home at the scene of a plane crash in Sanford, Fla., Tuesday. The small plane crashed into a neighborhood while trying to make an emergency landing, killing five people and starting two house fires that seriously burned three other people. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
"This has been a tremendous tragedy for all of us," said Sanford Police spokeswoman Cleo Cohen. "It's a situation like none we've ever seen."

The dead included Michael Klemm, a senior captain with NASCAR Aviation, and Dr. Bruce Kennedy, the husband of NASCAR official Lesa France Kennedy, on the twin-engine Cessna 310.

Gabriela Dechat, 4, died in her home at 354 Willowbay Ridge Drive after a rescuer was unable to go deep enough into the house to save her as he had her brother and parents.

In the house next door, 24-year-old Janice Joseph Woodard and her 6-month-old son, Joseph, died as the aviation fuel sparked a fire so large it could be seen from Interstate 4. Joseph L. Woodard, the husband and father of those who died, was not at home when the crash occurred at about 8:40 a.m.

Klemm and Kennedy had taken off from Daytona Beach International Airport at 8:23 a.m., bound for Lakeland. Kennedy, a 53-year-old plastic surgeon, was the passenger although he has a pilot's license and a commercial pilot certificate. Kennedy's wife is president of International Speedway Corp., and also vice president and assistant treasurer of NASCAR

The first hint of a problem came just after 8:30 a.m. Klemm called in an emergency and reported smoke in the cockpit, said Federal Aviation Authority spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.

"They were directing it to Sanford (International Airport) when a mile to two miles north-northwest of the airport, it crashed into a house," Bergen said.

Four people were in the two-story, stucco home: Pete and Milagros "Millie" Dechats, their 10-year-old son and their 4-year-old daughter, Gabriela.

A firefighter who lives in the neighborhood rushed into the first home and pulled Pete Dechat and the boy from the flames.

An unidentified woman, center, is escorted, to the scene of a plane crash where five people were killed in Sanford, Fla., Tuesday. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Ryan Cooper, a firefighter/paramedic with Lake Mary Fire Department, was off duty but had his bunker gear with him when he ran into the burning house.

Without his breathing apparatus, the 30-year-old Cooper was unable to go deep into the smoke-filled house to see if he could find the young girl.

Instead, he ran into the second home that was aflame but did not see Woodard or her infant son.

Cooper, who is married with two kids, rushed back outside and began treating the 10-year boy, whose name has not released.

The Dechats were taken by helicopter to Orlando Regional Medical Center in critical condition with the burns.

The boy appears to be the most seriously injured, with third-degree burns over 80 to 90 percent of his body, said Matt Minnetto, a Sanford fire investigator at the scene.

"(He's) a pretty tough kid," Minnetto said of the boy, who gave firefighters a thumbs up as he was taken away in the ambulance.

The boy has since been flown to the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Cincinnati, a 30-bed specialty burn center. His parents will remain at ORMC.

Cooper suffered heat exhaustion from the rescue effort. He and another person suffering from chest pains were taken to Central Florida Regional Hospital, where both were in stable condition

Officials survey the damage to a home at the scene of a plane crash in Sanford, Fla., Tuesday. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Despite the heroics, neighbors said that the Dechats begged for help for their daughter, even though they were severely burned themselves.

Melinda Arroyo said her sister woke her up shortly before 9 a.m., saying that a woman was outside screaming.

"She was yelling, 'My baby! My baby is upstairs,'" said Arroyo, 15, who could hear the woman's screams over the pops and explosions.

A man thought to be Pete Dechat wearing only underwear and blackened by fire was walking nearby in a daze, also looking for help, she said. The young boy sat in front of the home, his legs and arms clearly charred.

Eric Domnitz said that he saw the skin coming off the people who had been inside the home that was hit.

The father was panicking, falling to the ground and still trying to get his daughter out of the burning home.

"He was saying it was all he could do," Domnitz said . "He just tried. He tried."

"This is the kind of stuff you see on TV," he added. "I felt helpless."

Firefighters had the bulk of the blaze out by 10 a.m. Sanford Police have secured the area as a crime scene and will have officers posted along the road, near the Central Florida Zoo, through the night, Cohen said.

Officials have asked that only residents and family enter the subdivision until further notice.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and FAA are expected to arrive this evening to begin trying to determine what led to the crash that left the plane in several pieces throughout the neighborhood.

Neighbors reported hearing a whooshing sound and the crash explosion as they were readying for their days.

"I've never seen so many flames, never in all my life," said Marcela Rodriguez, who was eating breakfast at a friend's home when the plane crashed two houses away.

Rodriguez said she ran out and was unable to see anyone because of the heat and flames.

Heather Stahley, who also lives in the neighborhood, said she was upstairs with her two children when she heard the "boom, boom, boom" of the crash.

"Then I saw the two homes engulfed in flames and black smoke," she said. "I just couldn't believe it was happening."

Christian Schwarz said he and his wife were eating breakfast when they heard the first boom and thought it was just a garbage truck. Moments later his young son, who played with the boy in the house that was hit, ran in and said the neighbor's house was on fire.

"It was a huge fireball," he said. "It pretty much gutted those houses."

A twin-engine plane carrying a half-dozen men, including Jim and Brian France, taxied into NASCAR's hangar at the Daytona Beach airport at 11 a.m. this morning.

At the Kennedy home on the Halifax River in Daytona Beach, deputy sheriffs on the scene said the family says it's grieving and will release a statement later in the day.

Kennedy and France Kennedy married in 1988. The couple have one child, a 15-year-old son, Benjamin.

A statement from NASCAR expressed condolences for everyone touched by the accident.

"It is clear that numerous families were affected by this terrible tragedy and unfortunately, several people were deceased or seriously injured," the statement reads. "Our deepest sympathies and prayers are with all those who were involved in this tragic accident and their families."

Klemm, a native of Glandorf, Ohio, was 56 years old. He was a senior captain with NASCAR Aviation for the past 21 years. He is survived by his wife, Wendy, and sons Danny and Andy. They live in Daytona Beach.

FAA registry information showed that the plane was registered as airworthy in 1977.

The 310 is a common twin-engine plane that has been in use since after World War II. It is often used as an air taxi and for private use. It seats six people, including the pilot.

Bergen said the plane is registered to Competition Liaison Bureau Inc. of Daytona Beach. The company is registered as CL Bureau Inc. with the state's division of corporations. Lesa France Kennedy is listed as the firm's vice president.

Copyright 2007 Sentinel Communications Co.

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