FREMONT - A single-engine airplane crash near Fremont Airport yesterday afternoon killed six people, including the pilot who was a prominent former Ohio legislator and who was offering plane rides at a charity breakfast.
Killed in the 1 p.m. crash were Gene Damschroder, Sr., 86, of Fremont; Bill Ansted, 62, and Allison Ansted, 23, both of Lindsey; Danielle Gerwin, 31, and Emily Gerwin, 4, both of Gibsonburg, and Matt Clearman, 25, of Maumee.
According to troopers at the Ohio Highway Patrol post in Fremont, the Cessna U206C Super Skywagon crashed shortly after take-off into a residential area in Ballville Township east of the airport, killing all onboard. No structures were struck and no one on the ground was injured.
After taking off eastbound, the plane had circled back toward the airport when it went down about 1.1 miles from the runway's end, Trooper Matt Davis said.
Rex Damschroder, a son who followed his father's footsteps into the Ohio legislature, said the elder Mr. Damschroder was hosting a pancake breakfast at the airport to benefit the local Lions' Club and taking people up for airplane rides after that event. Rex Damschroder said he was not there when the plane crashed.
"One of the witnesses told me he heard the engine sputter, but that was about it," the younger Mr. Damschroder said.
Witnesses said the plane was sputtering and spinning moments before the crash.
Garrett Walker, 16, of Fremont, was driving down Barker Road to swim at a friend's house about 1 p.m. He said the low-flying plane's wings "swayed back and forth," then "silence, like the engine went off, then a loud pop like a firework. It exploded, exploded."
The plane crashed off the east end of Fremont Airport's runway in an open field surrounded by houses. It clipped a tree on its way down.
Federal Aviation Administration representatives were on the scene, and the National Transportation Safety Board dispatched investigators, the highway patrol said.
Tom Humbard, 58, of Fremont, rushed out of his home in the 800 block of Barker when he heard the noise and found the plane had crashed, largely intact, on its belly behind his home.
Mr. Humbard said his neighbor tried to open the plane's door as the engine burst into flames, tossing it back several feet.
He ran to his house to call 911 and brought a fire extinguisher, but it was too late.
"It happened so fast, by the time the plane hit, it happened too fast," he said.
Lt. Tony Bradshaw, a highway patrol spokesman, said the exact sequence of the crash remained undetermined in the formal investigation.
"The plane did go down and catch fire," he said. "As to what point [it caught fire], the NTSB will have to make a determination on that."
The pancake breakfast was a "drive-in/fly-in" event that typically attracts private pilots from around the area, some of them flying antique or historic aircraft. Gene Damschroder and several other pilots offered flights afterward to anyone willing to pay for the fuel consumed.
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Fremont Mayor Terry Overmyer said the pancake breakfast has been an annual event for several years. He estimated about 2,000 people attend each year.
As a part of the fund-raiser, Mr. Overmyer said Mr. Damschroder also would give plane rides.
"To have something like this happen, it's just a tragedy," said Mr. Overmyer, who was not at yesterday's breakfast.
The elder Mr. Damschroder, whose flying days dated back to military experience during World War II, had bought his airplane new 40 years ago and maintained it meticulously, his son said.
"He had a long flying career. He was a highly experienced pilot," Rex Damschroder said. "It was an accident - a misfortune. He's been flying since he was 20. Flying was his life."
The crash site became a steady parade of neighbors and onlookers by nightfall.
Tom Lochotzki, 63, of Fremont, who had attended the pancake breakfast, said he always has his binoculars out, watching the planes fly over his Buckland Avenue home.
"It's just strange," he said. "[It's] awful close to home for a lot of these people."
His friend, 65-year-old Peggi Miller, stood beside him, shaking her head.
"If I was ever going to fly with anybody, I'd fly with Gene," Ms. Miller said. "This man has flown all over the world. He's flown in wars, he's flown in everything, and this was his pleasure. This is what he did."
Randy Fielding, 55, of Fremont, spent 46 hours in the sky with Mr. Damschroder learning to fly.
"He was born to fly. He just had it, he was a natural. That's why I got away from it. I wasn't comfortable with it like he was," Mr. Fielding said.
Amanda Truman, 21, of Fremont, clutched a dozen roses and a large paper heart in memory of her cousins Danielle and Emily Gerwin.
It would become the first memorial for the victims.
The heart read "Danielle; Emily Rose; Our angels in heaven, we love and miss you" and listed the names of extended family.
She said Danielle's father, Bill Truman, recorded their flight - and that of her husband's and son's just before hers - on a video camcorder.
The family didn't see the worst of the crash, she said.
"They saw it disappear in the trees," she said. "I would just lose my mind."
Mr. Damschroder developed and owned the Fremont Airport and based his business, Damschroder Sales, there.
Last night, the airport office displayed a sign reading "Closed Until Further Notice Due to Death in Family" while a flag out front flew at half-staff.
FAA records show that Mr. Damschroder was licensed to fly both single and multiengine aircraft over land or sea. He also was a certified flight instructor and airframe and engine mechanic.
NTSB investigations of fatal plane crashes typically take a year or more to complete and involve inquiry into multiple aspects of a flight, including the pilot, the airplane, and the weather.
There were no storms in the Fremont area at the time of the crash, but the weather was hot and breezy. Hot weather reduces airplanes' aerodynamic lift, so they can't fly with as much weight as they might under cooler conditions, but Rex Damschroder said he doubted his father's plane was overloaded.
The Cessna U206C Super Skywagon is a six-seat plane with cruising speeds of between 151 and 170 mph, depending on when the aircraft was manufactured, and a maximum takeoff weight of 3,600 pounds.
The postcrash fire indicated it was unlikely the plane had run out of fuel.
On May 30, Gene Damschroder had been involved in a traffic accident on State Rt. 53 at the airport entrance, for which he was ticketed.
According to the Fremont post's report, Mr. Damschroder made a left turn into the airport driveway and collided with a car driven by Sister Rita M. Johns, 64, of Tiffin, a nun affiliated with the Ursuline Convent of the Sacred Heart in Toledo.
Trooper Matt Davis, who investigated the auto accident, said Mr. Damschroder was unhurt in that crash and appeared to be in good health and physical shape for his age.
"He said he didn't see her because the sun got in his eyes," the trooper said. Mr. Damschroder was cited for failure to yield.
Staff writers Bridget Tharp and Laren Weber contributed to this report.
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