Federal and state investigators continue their inquiry into the causes of a commuter airplane crash early Tuesday night in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. Both the plane's pilot and its sole passenger remain hospitalized.
On Tuesday at about 6:30 p.m., Cape Air flight No. 1381, bound from Providence to the Vineyard was making an instrument approach to the Martha's Vineyard Airport when it crashed three quarters of a mile short of Runway 24. Miraculously, the pilot and passenger were able to extricate themselves from the plane before it was engulfed in flames. The pilot, Mark Trafton, 40, of Westport was listed in critical condition last night at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, suffering from first and second-degree burns.
The passenger, Sharon Stevens-Grunden, 44, of Oak Bluffs is at Martha's Vineyard Hospital in fair condition, according to her husband, Dave Grunden, an Oak Bluffs shellfish constable. "We are all very lucky she survived," said Mr. Grunden, yesterday. "The prognosis is that she will make a full recovery. The burns will heal."
Mrs. Stevens-Grunden was on her way back from Florida after spending a week taking care of her mother, Mary Stevens.
Mrs. Stevens-Grunden is a respected volunteer in the Island chapter of the Red Cross and is credited for keeping that organization going during difficult times. Mr. Grunden said his wife never lost consciousness during the accident. Yesterday, she opened her eyes for the first time. First and second-degree burns to her face caused swelling, which Mr. Grunden said has begun to recede.
Investigators do not know what caused the 20-year-old, twin-engine Cessna 402 to go down short of the runway. According to reports, the weather was not extreme, overcast with a cloud ceiling of 100 feet. The wind was out of the southwest between 15 and 20 knots. There had been fog earlier in the evening. Shortly after the crash, the moon came out.
On Wednesday, a lead investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board, along with representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission, were on the scene. A quarter-acre crash scene in the state forest was defined by yellow plastic ribbon. The plane sat amid broken oak and scrub oak, pointed away from the airport. In the late afternoon, a representative from of the engine manufacturer, Continental, was getting assistance from the Martha's Vineyard Airport staff to recover the two engines. The investigators included a representative from Cessna, the airframe manufacturer.
A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board won't be out for a week.
Yesterday, Dan Wolf, the president of Cape Air, visited the crash scene. Mr. Wolf said his company is conducting its own investigation into the cause of the plane crash, but for now the emphasis is to make sure his staff are okay. Because of the medical condition of the pilot, no one has yet spoken with him.
A crisis counselor has been talking to staff at the company office at Martha's Vineyard Airport. This is the first significant airplane crash in the company's 12-year history. Said Mr. Wolf: "We care about each other and the customers. This strikes at the heart of all of us. We are in a grieving process right now. While there wasn't a loss of life, it is very difficult time for us."
The story of the survival of the pilot and passenger is being told and retold. Mr. Grunden said his wife deliberately chose not to sit in the cockpit of the plane before it left T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I. Normally when there is no one else in the plane, the passenger is invited to sit in the cockpit with the pilot. Instead, she sat behind the pilot.
Mr. Grunden said that moments before the crash, his wife told him, she felt a bump and heard an alarm sound in the cockpit. The plane then straightened, the alarms went out, there was a violent shake and then the plane crashed. She told him the pilot broke through his window and with his help, she followed him out.
Mr. Grunden said: "I heard from people that the way the plane landed may have been what saved their lives." Others have commented that the plane cartwheeled, spinning around as it fell to the ground, which explains why it is pointed away from the airport.
Once away from the plane, the pilot made the call for help, dialing 911 from his cellular telephone.
Peter Forend, 43, Oak Bluffs assistant fire chief, was among the first firemen to arrive at the scene. Word came over the communications center radio that a plane had crashed in the woods and that the call had been made by the pilot. "I was sitting at my dinner table programming my cell phone when the call came in," said Mr. Forend. Within minutes he had grabbed his gear and driven his pickup truck to the Airport Road, where a fire had been spotted. Mr. Forend went into the forest with an Edgartown police officer and a fireman from Edgartown. State environmental police Sgt. William L. Searle was the first to spot the plane crash.
Mr. Forend carried his flash light into the darkness. "We were probably 100 yards into the forest when Sharon and the pilot met us. They came up to us. They startled us when we saw them. We confirmed with them that there were only two in the plane. They both wanted to get out of the forest."
Ambulances from Edgartown and Oak Bluffs were en route.
"It didn't look like that big a flame. It looked like a campfire," Mr. Forend said. He said the pilot's clothing hung in pieces from him.
"We wanted him to sit down," Mr. Forend said. "He didn't want to sit down, he wanted to get out of the forest. He was pretty determined considering how injured he was. First thing I asked him was how many: He said two."
A West Tisbury brush breaker was the first vehicle to get to the plane crash. Foam was sprayed on the burning plane, according to Antone Bettencourt, Edgartown fire chief.
Edgartown police officer Michael Gazaille said of the two survivors: "I saw them come out of the forest. When I saw the plane, I couldn't imagine those two people walking from it."
Mr. Grunden was driving to the airport along the Airport Road when he saw the public safety vehicles parked on the side of the road. "I saw the crash truck cross the road in front of me. First I thought the worst. I looked at the clock," he said. "I continued to the airport, hoping that it wasn't her plane."
When Mr. Grunden reached the Cape Air counter, he met Colin Ewing, the manager. "He was trying to verify whether it was the Cape Air plane that went down."
Mr. Grunden said: "A taxi driver had a scanner. He heard there were two survivors. Colin Ewing said there were only two on the plane."
Mr. Grunden drove straight to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital emergency room. "She was already there," he said.
Mr. Grunden said: "She told me she consciously tried to hold her breath while in the plane. She knew it wasn't good."
Since the accident, Mr. Grunden said he and his family have received dozens of calls from friends and family as far away as Tennessee and California. "We thank everyone for their concern."
And to no surprise, because his wife has been such an active person in the Red Cross, Mr. Grunden said they have gotten calls from the regional and national offices of the American Red Cross wanting to help.