OWLS HEAD, Maine — Three people died in a plane crash Friday evening in the woods near the Knox County Regional Airport.
Knox County Airport Manager Jeffrey Northgraves confirmed that the accident happened Friday around 5 p.m. when the plane was taking off and it struck a pickup truck driving across the runway.
The plane crashed on the runway, caught fire and continued on about 300 yards into the woods beyond the runway, Northgraves said.
John Newcomb, president of Down East Air, said flames were shooting 10 to 20 feet high when he arrived and that others at the scene tried unsuccessfully to pull one of the occupants from the burning aircraft, which was consumed by flames.
Knox County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Timothy Carroll said the department received the report at 4:44 p.m. He was the first officer on the scene and said that the plane was on fire when he arrived. Firefighters from Owls Head, South Thomaston and Rockland responded. Carroll said because of the location of the wreckage, past a stream and about 200 yards into the woods, firefighters had to fight the fire with water cans and fire extinguishers.
Northgraves said the plane was a single-engine Cessna 172, which has seating for four.
He said the tail number was too charred and damaged to read, but he did not believe the plane was locally owned or that the passengers were local. Both Northgraves and Carroll said that it was not known where the plane was from or where it was going.
Northgraves said a plane taking off travels at about 100 miles per hour.
He said that the pickup truck was a vehicle authorized to be on the airport and driven by a pilot. He would not identify the driver but said it was not a county vehicle nor a county employee.
Carroll said the driver was the lone occupant of the truck and was not injured. The truck received minor damage to the front end. The vehicle has been impounded as part of the investigation into the crash.
The airport manager said that all trucks at the airport are equipped with radios to pick up any traffic from planes. He said all planes are required to radio their positions before, during and after takeoff. He said it was not known yet whether the plane that crashed had radioed its actions.
Carroll confirmed from the scene that three people were dead and that the plane was in the woods off Dublin Road, which is adjacent to the airport.
Northgraves said at about 6:30 p.m. that the sheriff’s office was preserving evidence at the scene until investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration could arrive later Friday night. An FAA investigator arrived at about 8:30 p.m.
The bodies were still at the crash site at 9 p.m. Northgraves said the FAA planned to remove them during the night. The identities of the crash victims were not released late Friday night.
Northgraves helped clear debris so the primary runway could be reopened long enough to let a Cape Air commercial flight land at 7:30 p.m.
Northgraves said the National Transportation Safety Board also was expected to arrive Saturday to join in the investigation.
The Knox County Regional Airport and the surrounding area have been the site of a number of plane crashes over the years, including the worst commercial aviation disaster in Maine history.
Downeast Airlines Flight 46, a DeHavilland Twin Otter propjet bound for Owls Head from Boston, crashed into a ledge in a heavily wooded area 1.2 miles short of the runway in thick fog on the night of May 30, 1979. Seventeen of the 18 people aboard were killed.
Although the National Transportation Safety Board investigation attributed that crash to pilot error, the management policies of Downeast Airlines also were cited as contributing factors. NTSB investigators stated in a report issued a year after the crash that testimony produced allegations that Downeast Airlines owner and president Robert Stenger promoted a culture that pressured pilots to land in Owls Head rather than divert flights to Augusta in poor weather conditions.
A pilot from Topsfield, Mass., was killed on June 23, 2008, when her single-engine, four-seat Piper Cherokee crashed in shallow coastal waters as she was preparing to practice approaches and landings at the airport.
Janet Strong, 73, died when she crashed near Crockett Beach Road, which is less than a mile from the airport.
Student pilot Peter Shorey of Newcastle was practicing soft-field takeoff maneuvers on July 21, 1998, in the Knox County Flying School’s 1968 Piper Cherokee when “it pancaked, crabbed to the left and crashed,” his flight instructor Edward Sleeper said at the time. Shorey needed 26 stitches to close the gash to his head suffered when the plane slammed into a low-lying bog area a few yards from the Knox County Airport runway. The plane was only about 10 feet off the runway when it came down.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.