110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
By Pat Andrews
posted Apr 3, 2012 - 6:07:36pm
The aircraft that crashed into the Northgate Publix store in DeLand Monday evening was a Seawind 3000 amphibious experimental aircraft, National Transportation Safety Board Senior Air Safety Investigator Luke Schiada said during a press conference Tuesday morning.
Most of the airplane's remains have now been removed.
The 3000-model kit plane is no longer manufactured by Seawind. It's been replaced by the Seawind 300, which is being certified for production.
It appears that both men on board, identified as Thomas Rhoades and Kim Presbrey, were from Illinois, Schiada said, and the plane was based in Aurora, Ill.. Records show Presbrey as the plane's owner; it's unknown which man was flying it.
Witnesses reported seeing a twin-engine plane come down, but if it was a Seawind, it was a single-engine aircraft, Richard Silva of Seawind LLC in Pennsylvania said. He hadn't heard about the accident.
The airplane has wingtip floats that may have looked like engines, he said, but the Seawind's single engine is cantilevered from its tail. The aircraft can seat up to four people.
Both Rhoades and Presbrey remain in Orlando Regional Medical Center in critical condition.
The aircraft was largely burned and disintegrated.
Its removal was made easier by fragmentation of the plane's remains; that fragmentation will make the investigation more difficult, Schiada said.
The pieces will ultimately go to a facility in Washington, D.C., for further study. For now, they are being stored at a facility in Groveland.
Schiada said the amateur-built aircraft probably didn't have a black box or flight recorder inside. If some of the electronics survived the fire, investigators may be able to pull some information about the crash's cause from them.
Schiada said that security cameras both inside and outside the store will be reviewed to see if they shed any light on the crash. The NTSB will not release any evidence they collect, including tapes, until their investigation is complete.
Meanwhile, an eyewitness to the crash was back at Lowe's, just east of the Publix store, Tuesday morning.
Don Gauthier of DeLand said he went to Lowe's Monday evening to pick up door hinges. In the parking lot, he noticed the aircraft climbing from its takeoff at the DeLand airport.
"It was running good, really good," he said.
Then, the engine started sputtering and backfiring.
The airplane started a roll to the left.
"It hit nose down," and there was a 20-foot-long fireball, Gauthier said.
There was pandemonium, and Lowe's employees ran toward Publix to try to help.
"There was nothing anyone could do," Gauthier said.
He blocked traffic with his vehicle so emergency responders could get to the store, and DeLand fire and police personnel were there very quickly, Gauthier said.
It was traumatic, not only for the people involved, but for the people who saw it, Gauthier said. A woman in the Lowe's parking lot fell to her knees, screaming and crying after the plane hit.
Gauthier came back to Lowe's April 3 for the hinges he never got the evening before.
Publix corporate spokesman Dwaine Stevens said all Publix employees in the store at the time of the accident have been accounted for. The store employs 175 associates, all of whom are being reassigned to other stores until the North DeLand store can reopen.
How soon that will be is unknown.
"We don't know how long it's going to take to assess the damages," Stevens said.
He said merchandise and the building can be replaced, but not people, and he's thankful no one was killed.
"We are prayerful for their speedy recoveries and for their families," Stevens said of the injured people.
Three store customers were injured by the crash. They are Lisa Cordova, April Morris and Brendan Beitler, all locals. Stetson University student Beitler, DeLand Police Lt. Jack Waples said this afternoon, is still at ORMC but is in stable condition. Cordova and Morris were released Monday night after being treated at Florida Hospital-DeLand.
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