FREMONT - National Transportation Safety Board investigators yesterday declined to say what they think caused former state lawmaker Gene Damschroder's single-engine plane to crash and burn Sunday afternoon, killing him and five passengers.
"Thus far, everything's preliminary," said Mitchell Gallo, air safety investigator for the NTSB's Chicago office. "If I put something out there, it may end up being wrong. It'll end up being speculative at this point."
Family and friends of Mr. Damschroder and his five passengers - Bill Ansted, 62; his daughter, Allison, 23; her boyfriend, Matt Clearman, 25; Danielle Gerwin, 31, and her daughter, Emily, 4 - visited the scene of the crash yesterday, some shaking their heads while others shed tears.
Rebecca Damschroder, 21, who is one of Mr. Damschroder's granddaughters, covered her mouth and burst into tears when she visited the crash site with her mother, Melissa.
Stricken with grief, the women did not want to talk to reporters at the scene.
Larry Nieeset of Fremont, who worked with Mr. Ansted for 15-20 years at Fremont's Green Bay Packaging, watched investigators attentively as they examined the crash site and said expressed his sorrow his former supervisor had lost his life.
"You never know," Mr. Nieeset said. "One day you're here. The next day you're not."
Mr. Damschroder's plane took off from the Fremont airport for the last time Sunday afternoon, crashing at 12:58 p.m. in a lush, green field along Barker Road, about a mile away in Ballville Township.
The flag flies at half staff outside Fremont Airport yesterday in memory of Gene Damschroder and his five passengers. Yesterday there was speculation the pilot knew he was going to crash and tried to land in the only clearing available nearby.
The crash left investigators and local residents with many questions, but no obvious answers.
What was obvious, however, was the high esteem in which the local community holds Mr. Damschroder, who at age 86, was a career pilot who flew planes in World War II and later became a state congressman.
"He was a nice man, a nice Christian man," said Donna Henkel, of Fremont, who visited the crash scene yesterday with her son, Noah.
Mr. Damschroder spent Sunday the way he did every year at this time in June, flying his plane, a Cessna U206C Super Skywagon, which seats up to six passengers, to the Fremont airport for an annual pancake breakfast charity event to benefit the local Lions Club.
He also offered plane rides to anyone willing to pay the cost of the fuel.
Ballville Township Fire Chief Doug Cowell said Mr. Damschroder took multiple trips into the air Sunday, but investigators aren't sure how long his plane was in the air before it crashed.
"We have indications it had just took off and we have indications it had taken off, turned around, and was coming back in," Chief Cowell said. "We don't know how long he was up in the air."
Some investigators and one pilot speculated that Mr. Damschroder realized he was going to crash and tried to land his plane in the only clearing available nearby.
A resident of Hampton Road, which intersects Barker Road just north of the crash site, said she was sitting in her home, looking into her backyard, when she saw the plane crash nose-first into the field, which lies behind her yard.
"I hear planes fly in all the time, but I thought yesterday, 'Boy, that one sounds awful low,'•" said the woman, who asked not to be named. "There was smoke and I ran for my phone to call 9-1-1. When I had her on the phone, [the plane] was already in flames."
Investigators and witnesses said a group of good samaritans tried to save the plane's occupants.
State troopers said one girl who lives nearby even tried pulling open a door on the plane as it burst into flames.
"There were people calling out to the people in the plane with no response," Chief Cowell said.
When the plane caught fire, the rescuers reluctantly moved away, he said.
State troopers arrived on the scene at 1:04 p.m. along with Ballville Township firefighters who extinguished the blaze, which was fed by fuel from the plane, in about 10 minutes.
Mr. Gallo said the fire started in the plane's fuselage, or the body of the plane, where the passengers were located.
Emergency responders said the people onboard showed no sign of life before or after the fire.
Lt. Brent Meredith, of the Ohio Highway Patrol's Fremont post, was the officer in charge at the time of the crash and was on the scene during the preliminary investigation.
"The [emergency medical technicians] on scene, I'm sure checked them, but it was pretty much presumed they were dead," he said.
The bodies were removed to be examined by the Lucas County Coroner's Office.
The plane's wreckage remained exactly where it crashed until NTSB investigators had it removed late in the afternoon yesterday.
Dozens of curious onlookers weathered the heat of the afternoon yesterday to get as close as they could to the quiet crash scene, which was cordoned off with police tape.
Some just wanted to see what was going on. Others knew the victims and wanted to pay their respects.
One of them was Marathon Oil Company Pilot Steve Frost, 54, who flies private jets for company executives in Findlay.
He said Mr. Damschroder was the man who taught him to fly a plane many years ago.
"I can pretty much tell you I don't think this is the way he wanted to leave this world, I can tell you that," Mr. Frost said. "All the years I knew him, he loved aviation. He loved the people of this community.•.•.•.• Bottom line is he was trying to do the thing that he loved the most. He was a really good pilot."
Friends and family of Mr. Damschroder said his abilities as a pilot defied his age.
"I just ran into him last summer, he and his wife down at a restaurant downtown. He was as sharp as the day I first met him," Mr. Frost said.
"I think we all get older and I think some things slow down, but you don't have to be really fast to fly an airplane. You just have to have good judgment. I think Gene had really good judgment."
Mr. Gallo said a final report won't be issued by the NTSB until about a year from now, but a preliminary report will be made public within several days.
Contact Chauncey Alcorn at: email@example.com or 419-724-6168.
Other fatal, small-plane crashes in the Toledo area during the past five years:
Jan. 12, 2008: A twin-engine Cessna 340 crashed on approach to Erie-Ottawa County Regional Airport near Port Clinton, killing four Mansfield, Ohio-area residents on board. An unidentified federal inspector who witnessed the crash told the National Transportation Safety Board that the plane was flying too slow and stalled aerodynamically, meaning that it was no longer being lifted by airflow over and under the wings. The safety board s investigation continues.
Sept. 26, 2007: A Chicago-area pilot volunteering on an Angel Flight mission to Findlay died when his Piper Cherokee Lance crashed in a field southwest of Defiance. The crash s cause remains under investigation by the NTSB.
Sept. 21, 2007: A homebuilt gyrocopter crashed at Erie Aerodrome in Erie Township, killing its pilot, Daniel P. Grochowski, of Bedford Township.
Witnesses said the aircraft s rotor separate from the rest of the vehicle.
Sept. 3, 2007: A Lima, Ohio-area man and one of two sons on board died when their Cessna 172C Skyhawk crashed into Lake Erie shortly after takeoff from Kelleys Island Airport. Jeff Hutchison, 46, and Jeremy Hutchison, 9, died while Joel Hutchison, 7, was rescued from the water by an island resident who witnessed the crash and went to the scene in a rowboat. An NTSB investigation continues.
Dec. 17, 2006: The crash of a Piper PA-24-260 in Bucyrus, Ohio, killed four members of an Oklahoma family.
The NTSB ruled that ice accumulating on the plane s wings caused it to slow down to the point at which it stalled aerodynamically, and that the pilot then entered an excessively steep descent. The flight was headed from Tulsa, Okla., to Belfast, Maine, with a planned stop in Wadsworth, Ohio.
Sept. 18, 2005: A Piper Comanche C clipped trees in heavy fog and crashed shortly after takeoff from Seneca County Airport near Tiffin, killing its pilot, Charles F. Hanline, Jr., of Willard. The NTSB determined that the pilot, while certified to fly under the guidance of cockpit instruments, lost spatial orientation in the fog.
Sept. 29, 2004: Marion Davis, 68, of Findlay, died when his ultralight aircraft crashed in a cornfield southeast of Findlay. A witness told authorities he saw a shimmer on the wings before the plane plunged to the ground.
May 11, 2003: Three members of a Minnesota family died when a B24R Beech Sierra crashed while attempting to land at Fulton County Airport near Wauseon during a windstorm. The NTSB faulted the pilot for failure to maintain control of the plane while approaching the runway, and cited the high wind and the pilot s decision to fly under those conditions as contributing factors.