911 call details moments after plane crash into power lines

Patrick Merkle estimated that his aircraft ended up 60 to 100 feet off the ground, pinned to a power line at a 45-degree angle. After the crash, without a ladder or rescuers climbing up, he and his passenger considered jumping from the plane.

“I just moved the panel that gives us enough room to get out,” Merkle said calmly to the 911 dispatcher. “I think it’s safer outside.”

In Montgomery County, about 5:30 p.m. Sunday, his single-engine aircraft became tangled in power lines, and he worried that the aircraft would become dislodged from the tower. As he pleaded for help, he said, the plane was already shifting with the wind. Janet Williams, his passenger, and he were getting cold. He had a bleeding nose. She may have fractured a rib. They both suffered head injuries.

“I’m just concerned about our situation and the possibility that we could slip out of this tower,” Merkle continued to describe their location and injuries to dispatcher Laurel Manion. “That would not be a survivable distance.”

New details are revealed after listening to the 911 calls Merkle and Williams made shortly after their plane crash into Pepco transmission lines Sunday. They were about a mile from their destination when the crash occurred at Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg.

He said it was “absolutely a miracle” that he and Williams, 65, were alive. “How many people sit 150 feet off the ground and worry about whether or not they’re even going to be able to survive?” he wondered. (The Maryland State Police initially reported ages which differed from Merkle’s and Williams’s on the 911 tape.)

Merkle was discharged from the hospital on Monday. It was expected that Williams would be discharged on Tuesday, Merkle said.

A cause for the crash has not yet been determined. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, said Tuesday that the aircraft will be moved to a facility for analysis. An update on the crash isn’t expected for weeks, agency spokeswoman Sarah Sulick said.

There was misty and rainy weather in the Washington region at the time of the crash, but it was not clear if those conditions contributed to the accident.

According to Merkle, he is waiting for an interview with the NTSB and declined to comment further. 911 recordings, however, provide clues as to what might have gone wrong.

“What exactly happened before the crash? Was it, like, a visibility issue?” Manion asked the pilot, trying to keep them calm.

“Yes, totally a visibility …” he replied. “We were looking for the airport. I descended to the minimum altitude and then apparently, I got down a little lower than I should have.”

After the crash, a complex effort was undertaken overnight to get the aircraft and pair back to the ground safely. As a result of the crash, widespread power outages were experienced, the county’s school district cancelled classes, and safety concerns were raised around a regional airport where at least 30 crashes were reported in the past four decades.

In the misty evening darkness, emergency personnel responding to 911 calls – including Merkle’s – encountered a challenging scene. After making contact with two power-line towers, the plane was lodged among high-voltage lines. Winds were picking up, and the plane was too high for a standard ladder.

As the pair sat in the aircraft, they grew increasingly anxious.

“Please hurry,” Williams pleaded a short time after the crash. “I’m really getting worried. The plane is definitely moving from the wind. So whatever it is they are going to do, they need to start doing it.”

Merkle worried about how long it would take rescuers to arrive: It looks like it’s going to be quite a while before they get up here.”

At the 911 dispatch center, Manion assured the dispatchers that rescuers were working on a plan. She said she would stay on the line until emergency personnel arrived. As the pair discussed grabbing onto the tower, she warned them about live power lines.

Her big concern was that they might be electrocuted, so she asked them to remain in the plane. She added that emergency personnel were “working on a plan.”

During an interview, Manion, 22, said she had answered routine calls after her shift began at 3 p.m. A witness on the ground then called to report a plane crash.

“After that, I picked up the phone again and then, sure enough, it was the pilot,” Manion said. The call lasted about 1 1/2 hours until the battery of their cellphones was depleted and communications were restricted.

When Merkle and Williams told her they wanted to leave, she consulted firefighters for guidance and discovered the tower was electrified. Manion assured Merkle and Williams that inside the plane was the safest place. Manion then noted that even if they tried to rescue themselves, there was nowhere to stand on the tower.

The crew had to stabilize the aircraft before trying to rescue it. There was a need to cut power to the lines by utility crews. Seven hours later, two boom crane trucks were used to remove the pair, and the plane was lowered to the ground around 3:30 a.m. ten hours after it crashed.

“They were pretty calm,” Manion reported. “I don’t know how calm I would have been if I was in their shoes. And that’s just what I was trying to think about the whole time that I was reassuring them.”