A single engine Cessna airplane attempting to land yesterday afternoon at Katama Airfield in Edgartown stalled and crashed at the end of Runway 6, injuring the pilot and two passengers.
All three victims - a woman and two men - were pulled free from the wreckage and taken by ambulance to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.
Edgartown police and Katama Airfield manager Michael Creato said that the pilot and passengers were all deaf, part of a squadron of at least a dozen small planes and pilots from the Deaf Pilots Association who took off from Plymouth Municipal Airport yesterday morning bound for the grass runways at the Edgartown airfield.
While neither police nor hospital officials would confirm medical information, it is understood that at least one of the people in the plane sustained a broken leg and that two of the victims were transported by helicopter to a mainland hospital.
State police, along with the Massachusetts aeronautics commission, are investigating the cause of the crash, which happened shortly after 1 p.m.
Eyewitnesses said the Cessna had turned over the Atlantic Ocean and was flying back over South Beach on its approach to Runway 6.
Paul Santopietro, the pilot of a charter Waco biplane owned by Classic Aviators, was taxiing down the runway in preparation for takeoff when the Cessna approached the same runway to land.
"I'd already moved out of the way for two of them," Mr. Santopietro told the Gazette in a telephone interview. "When you're on the runway, it's your runway. They shouldn't be landing if I'm on the runway. I look up and there's another airplane on short final. We're nose to nose and I pulled out of the way. Instead of landing, he tried to add power and pull up."
Mr. Creato, an owner of Classic Aviators and manager at the airfield for the last three years, said the Cessna pilot was in trouble right then.
"He added full power but let the airplane get away from him and stalled at 50 to 100 feet," he said.
Lifeguard Nic Turner was driving down Herring Creek Road, less than 200 yards away, when he saw the 1979 Cessna Skyhawk fall. "It just went straight down," said Mr. Turner, a Bowdoin College student home for summer break. "It was very scary."
The first person on the scene, Mr. Turner said he ran across the field. "We're actually doing all this training right now, but this was real. Fuel was pouring out. I helped get towels and shirts to sop up the fuel, and I tried to maintain eye contact with them. They weren't responding but they were signing with each other. One of the girls was screaming a little bit."
Other lifeguards also rushed to the crash site.
"I saw it coming in. It came in across the beach at a weird angle. It turned sharply and pulled up," said beach director Kris Hauck. "There was gasoline everywhere."
Mr. Creato said that as soon as he learned of the crash, he ordered the airfield closed and announced it over the radio. But the other pilots could not hear the announcement.
"They kept coming," he said. "Maybe they weren't able to think of anything better to do. They all made good landings."
Between 10 and 12 planes landed at the airfield altogether.
According to the Deaf Pilots Association (DPA) web site, the Federal Aviation Administration issues pilot certificates to deaf people but restricts them to flying only into uncontrolled or non-towered airports, or airports that do not require radio communications for landings or takeoffs.
While the pilots from the DPA continued to land at the airfield, emergency crews from Edgartown and Oak Bluffs fire and ambulance departments began arriving and working to free the crash victims.
"The plane was pretty well mangled. It was difficult to get them out, but we had the time to make a good extrication," said Edgartown fire chief Antone Bettencourt.
Within a half hour, they had pulled all three people from the plane. The victims' deafness initially posed a problem.
"We couldn't communicate," said Chief Bettencourt. "It was difficult to find out the injuries and how serious they were. Luckily, we had a paramedic who could assess all three."
The chief said the injuries sustained were all low priorities. Firefighters blanketed the area with fire retardant foam to treat the gasoline spill.
"Luckily, nobody was killed," said Mr. Creato. "It could have been worse."
Mr. Creato said he was notified that a group of pilots was planning to land at the airport this week, but he was not aware they were all deaf.
According to the DPA web site, yesterday's excursion to the Vineyard was part of the organization's annual fly-in, where deaf pilots from around the country gather in one location and then take daily trips to nearby airports.
The pilots met Monday evening in Plymouth, attended a safety seminar Tuesday morning at the municipal airport and began flying on Tuesday afternoon, according to the schedule published on their web site.
Other destinations were Provincetown, Block Island, R.I., and Newport, R.I., but base camp has been in Plymouth.
"They've been here all week," said Scott Beane, the night lineman at the Plymouth Municipal Airport. "They have three of their own planes. The rest of them are rented from Alpha One Flight School right here."
Attempts to reach spokesmen at the pilots' organization in both Georgia and Illinois were unsuccessful.
Gazette reporter Mark Alan Lovewell contributed to this story.