Knox County hit with threat of second lawsuit over fatal plane crash

Posted March 06, 2013, at 7:10 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — The estate of a second young man killed in the Nov. 16 airplane crash at the Knox County Regional Airport has notified the county that it may sue for $2 million.

Knox County Administrator Andrew Hart confirmed Wednesday that the new notice of claim had been filed against the county.

The notice was filed on behalf of the estate of William B.J. Hannigan III. Hannigan, 24, of South Portland, was the pilot of the Cessna 172 single-engine plane that crashed after it struck a pickup truck crossing the runway. Hannigan and both his passengers died in the crash.

The notice is the second one filed with Knox County. In December, a notice of intent to sue was sent to the county on behalf of the estate of Marcelo Rugini, 24, of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

Both notices allege that the Nov. 16 crash was due to the negligence of the county for, among other things, allowing a motor vehicle on the runway with inadequate lighting and other defects. The notices also claim that the county failed to adopt and enforce safety rules, failed to properly train people who use the airport facilities, and that the runways were not properly designed or managed.

The notice was filed by William Hannigan Jr. of Portland and Carolyn Dorr of Windham on behalf of William Hannigan III’s estate. The estate is represented by attorney Kevin Hovermale of Portland.

Hannigan, a University of Maine alumnus, was a member of the Maine Air National Guard and the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. Rugini and fellow passenger and UMaine student David Cheney, 22, of Beverly, Mass., were members of the same fraternity. 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.

The county is represented by attorney Peter Marchesi of Waterville. After the first claim was filed, Marchesi said basically that the county was 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.

According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board filed a few days after the Nov. 16 crash, Turner told the board 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,” the safety board 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.

At last month’s county commissioners meeting, the commissioners approved 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 is expected to be built later this year.

Northgraves’ plan also calls for requiring vehicles at 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 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 that he does not know if any of the changes he has proposed would have prevented the Nov. 16 crash, but that they are aimed at preventing future incidents.

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