OWLS HEAD, Maine — A man driving a pickup truck that collided Friday with a plane carrying three University of Maine students was described Sunday by his boss as “professional and very conscientious.”
Stephen Turner, 62, of Camden, was driving his 1994 GMC truck across a runway at Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head at around 4:45 p.m. Friday when it collided with a four-seat, single-engine Cessna 172 that was taking off, according to officials. The plane managed to become airborne but crashed soon after takeoff, killing all three people on board, investigators have said.
Citing information provided by members of the fraternal organization Lambda Chi Alpha, UMaine officials have indicated that the three crash victims are pilot William “BJ” Hannigan, 24, of South Portland, and passengers David Cheney, 22, of Beverly, Mass., and Marcelo Rugini, 24, of Muliterno, Brazil. All three were students at UMaine and members of the fraternity.
A woman who answered the phone Sunday morning at Turner’s home in Camden, when asked if Turner was available, said, “He’s not here,” and quickly hung up the phone.
Turner is a pilot and instructor with Penobscot Island Air, which is based at the Owls Head airport and provides flights to nearly a dozen coastal and island communities in eastern Maine.
Kevin Waters, owner and director of operations for the company, said Sunday that Turner is a “passionate” and committed professional.
“You’re not going to find a finer guy,” Waters said. “He cares tremendously [about what happened Friday]. He’s a great person.”
Waters said he was at the airport when the plane crashed and saw it become airborne. He said it was twilight, and that the runway lights were on, but that he could see the plane’s outline low against the western sky.
“You still had a western glow, sunset-wise,” Waters said.
Waters said he saw the plane disappear over the trees past the western end of the runway and figured it must have crashed. He dialed 911 right away, he said, but did not find out until later that the plane had collided on the runway with Turner’s truck.
Waters said he did not know anything about the collision or what may have contributed to it. The only ones who do know, he added, are Turner and the three UMaine students.
“Everything happened fairly quickly,” he said. “The whole thing is extremely tragic.”
In a prepared statement released Saturday, the Knox County Sheriff’s Department indicated that just before the runway collision, Turner assisted with putting a plane away in a hangar near the airport terminal.
“This was routine practice that occurs daily,” police wrote in the statement.
Waters said he did not know which plane Turner had assisted with putting away and was not sure whether it was a Penobscot Air plane or a different aircraft that Turner had been handling.
Why the Cessna that was carrying Hannigan, Cheney and Rugini landed at Knox County Regional Airport is not clear. The plane had taken off from Bangor International Airport earlier in the day, on what the students’ fraternity brothers have described as a simple joy ride, and had flown over Spear’s Vegetable Farm in Nobleboro, where Rugini had lived and worked, before heading to Owls Head. The three men were expected to fly back to BIA later in the day.
An employee with Downeast Air, the fixed-base operator at the Owls Head airport, said Sunday that as far as he knows, the UMaine students did not buy fuel after touching down in Knox County. He said he was not at the airport when the UMaine students passed through Friday afternoon, but added that a Downeast Air official told him company employees did not interact with the students. The other official was not at the airport Sunday.
“They didn’t come through us at all,” Downeast Air employee Shane Burns said.
Burns said the lack of contact is not unusual. Private planes often land at the airport and then take off again without seeking out the company’s services, he said.
Investigators have not confirmed the identities of the three crash victims, saying that they will release the names of the deceased after the State Medical Examiner’s Office completes autopsies of the victims, which is expected to happen later this week.
The collision and ensuing plane crash remains under investigation by the Knox County Sheriff’s Department, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.