Knox County faces $2 million claim over fatal plane crash

This aerial photo taken Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 shows the proximity of the wreckage of a plane that crashed Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 killing three, to the Knox County Regional Airport.
R.W. Estela
This aerial photo taken Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 shows the proximity of the wreckage of a plane that crashed Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 killing three, to the Knox County Regional Airport.
Posted Jan. 02, 2013, at 12:14 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 02, 2013, at 2:19 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — A $2 million claim against Knox County has been filed on behalf of the estate of one of the three young men who died in an airplane crash at the Owls Head Regional airport two months ago.

The notice of intent to sue was sent to the county Dec. 26 on behalf of Jeffrey Spear of Nobleboro, who is the personal representative of the estate of Marcelo Rugini, 24, of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

The notice states that the Nov. 16 crash was due to the negligence of the county for, among other things, allowing a motor vehicle on the runway.

Rugini was a student at the University of Maine and the education officer for the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.

Rugini was a passenger in the Cessna 172 single-engine plane piloted by UMaine alumnus William B.J. Hannigan, 24, of South Portland, who was a member of the Maine Air National Guard and the fraternity. Also killed was fellow passenger and UMaine student David Cheney, 22, of Beverly, Mass. Cheney was president of the fraternity.

The crash occurred after the plane struck a pickup truck driving across the main runway at the airport in Owls Head. The 1994 GMC truck was driven by Stephen Turner, 62, of Camden. Turner is a pilot and instructor at Penobscot Island Air, which is located at the Knox County airport.

Turner told the Knox County Sheriff’s Office that the incident occurred so quickly he did not know what had happened.

Rugini had worked and lived at the Spear farm in Nobleboro, when not at the university, since he came to the United States from Brazil six years ago. The Cessna had flown over the Spear farm before it landed at the Owls Head airport.

The notice of claim states that Rugini’s death was caused by the negligence of the county for failure to adopt and enforce adequate safety rules at the airport. The failures included use of vehicles at the airport and failure to adequately train people who operate at the airport, according to the notice. The claim also argues that the runways were not properly designed or managed.

Attorney Peter Marchesi of Waterville, who represents Knox County, said basically the county is now in a wait-and-see mode. He said the notice of intent is required under the Maine Tort Claims Act before a lawsuit can be filed. The estate has two years to file the suit against the county and six years against any nongovernmental body.

The estate is being represented by attorney Steven Silin of Lewiston.

According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board filed a few days after the Nov. 16 crash, Turner told the NTSB investigator that he announced over the common traffic advisory frequency for aircraft that he planned to cross the runway. He said he heard no response and didn’t see anything on the 5,000-foot-long Runway 31, so he proceeded to cross.

“He subsequently saw something grayish in color, continued to cross the runway, and then got out to inspect what he saw, at which time he observed an airplane attempting to climb,” NTSB stated in its preliminary report. “He continued watching the airplane drift to the left of the runway and make a left turn as if attempting to return to the airport. Subsequently, the airplane was then observed in slow flight, and then it began to spin.”

The plane then went nose-down into the woods about 2,200 feet from where the truck and plane collided on the runway, according to the federal agency’s preliminary report.

Pieces of both the right elevator and the right rear stabilizer from the Cessna 172 single-engine plane were found on the runway near the site where the collision occurred.

In the aftermath of the fatal crash, the safety panel for Knox County Regional Airport gave its support to new safety measures, including reducing vehicle traffic on the runways.

Airport Manager Jeffrey Northgraves said anyone who is authorized to be inside the perimeter fence will continue to receive annual training. What will change is the level of the training based on where personnel will be authorized to travel at the airport. He said previous training has included safety requirements for crossing the runway but that training has been given to all users of the airport even if they have no need to cross.

The manager also is proposing construction of a 12- to 15-foot-wide gravel road on the edge of the main runway to further reduce the need for vehicles to cross that 5,000-foot runway. That gravel road cannot be built until spring at the earliest, he said. He already has asked the airport’s engineers to determine whether the road would be eligible for federal airport improvement grants.

His plan also calls for requiring vehicles on the airport to have lighted beacons, which are to be used day and night. Turner’s truck did not have a lighted beacon.

The manager also announced last month that he wants to record all traffic on the local radio frequency used by planes and vehicles that use the airport. He also called for installing cameras to monitor runways.

The Knox County airport is considered a general aviation airport. There is no control tower and planes do not have to be logged in for arrivals or takeoffs.

Northgraves said last month he does not know if any of the changes he has proposed would have prevented the Nov. 16 crash but are aimed at preventing future incidents.

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