News Clip: NTSB: Pilot Asked About Icy Conditions Before Deadly Crash on Rt. 287

Firm IDs some of those on board as employees. 5 dead, plus dog. 

Reporting for the following piece involved several staff members, under the direction of Louis C. Hochman, who also wrote the text. Patch updated this story several times over the day.

Originally published on Morristown Patch · December 20, 2011

Note: We’re continuing to provide frequent updates to this story. Check back at this post often.

Latest updates:

  • All lanes of 287 re-opened, recovery process to resume Wednesday.
  • All five people on board, plus dog, die in Route 287 plane crash.
  • Investigation could take months, but initial report should be ready in days.
  • Pilot reportedly spoke about icy conditions, but it’s not clear what role those conditions might have played.
  • Two occupants worked for Greenhill and Co. bank. One employee said to have had his children and wife aboard.
  • Video: Plane Was Raining Debris All Over
  • Plane was coming from Teterboro, headed for Georgia.
  • Route 287 closed for most of the day, but some lanes reopened in the afternoon. More lanes could open late at night.
  • Debris spread across a half mile.

It’s possible—but far from confirmed—icy conditions played a role in a Tuesday morning plane crash on Route 287 that killed all five people aboard. But investigators are only in the earliest stage of their work, a National Transportation Safety Board representative said.

Authorities were on the scene of a plane crash on Route 287 near exit 35 Tuesday. This shot, showing part of the debris of the wing, was taken at Spring Brook Road and James Street. Credit: John Dunphy

Speaking at Morris Township’s municipal building mid-afternoon, Robert Gretz of the NTSB stressed it could take 6 to 12 months before a full report on the crash, which took place near exit 35, is released, and a lot of investigatory work is ahead.

“This is day one of an investigation,” he said.

There have been reports that about 14 minutes into the flight, the pilot was in contact with an FAA facility about possible icy conditions, Gretz said. It’s not known to what extent, if any, those conditions played a factor.

Contact with the plane was lost soon after, and, according to witnesses, the plane spiraled into the southbound lanes of Route 287 before sliding over to the north side of the road and coming to rest in pieces.

In addition to the five people on board who died, a dog on the plane was killed. No motorists were injured, through Gretz said he’s heard reports the plane narrowly missed hitting a truck.

Pilot Jeffrey F. Buckalew and passenger Rakesh Chawla were managing directors of Greenhill and Company, working out of the banking firm’s offices in New York, according to the company. Authorities have not confirmed the identities of those killed in the crash, but they have said three adults and two children perished.

“The plane belonged to Mr. Buckalew, an experienced pilot whose passion was flying,” the bank said in a prepared statement sent to Patch. “We also believe that Mr. Buckalew’s wife, Corinne, and their two children, Jackson and Meriwether, were on the plane.”

Authorities reported a death toll of between three and five people as the hours passed Tuesday morning. At just after 1:10 p.m., the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office said via Twitter that five people had been killed; about an hour later state police clarified that meant there were no survivors.

Gretz said the plane had no “black box,” but it did have a GPS tracker that might provide insight into the crash.

He said there have been conflicting reports about whether the plane broke apart in the air or after hitting the ground, but the wreckage was spread over approximately a half-mile. Some of it was reportedly in trees near Morristown-area residences.

Citing the preliminary investigation, Gretz said it seemed parts of the tail section wound up near the residences.

State police spokesman Lt. Stephen Jones was asked by a reporter at the mid-day press conference if the bodies of the deceased were found in the cockpit. But the damage to the plane was so bad, he said, “there’s no cockpit to be seen.”

“It was definitely a traumatic site,” Jones said.

About 100 people from 15 agencies were working either in support roles or to recover the plane and the remains of the victims, he said.

The NTSB expected that while a full report and analysis would take much longer, in 5 to 10 days it would publish preliminary findings on its website.

“The [Greenhill] firm is in deep mourning over the tragic and untimely death of two of its esteemed colleagues and members of Jeff’s family,” Robert F. Greenhill, chairman, and Scott Bok, CEO, said in the statement. “Jeff was one of the first employees of Greenhill. He and Rakesh were extraordinary professionals who were highly respected by colleagues and clients alike. They will be sorely missed and our sympathies go out to their families and friends.”

Buckalew, 45, was head of Greenhill’s North American Advisory activities, according to the company. Buckalew was also a board member of Good Shepherd Services, a youth development, education and family service organization in New York.

Chawla, 36, was a managing director who specialized in the financial services sector. He had joined the firm in 2003 from The Blackstone Group.

Route 287 was closed for most of Tuesday, but shoulders of the road were  reopened intermittently; cars were backed up for miles. Jones said that by mid-afternoon, some lanes had been reopened, but it was unlikely the highway would be open overall until at least 10 p.m. Authorities were advising anyone who could to avoid the area.

The single-engine Socata TBM 700 aircraft had flown out of Teterboro, state police at the Netcong barracks said.

The plane had been headed to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said. The plane’s registration number is N731ca.

Wreckage from the aircraft was visible scattered over several lanes of traffic. News 12 also reported that debris was found at least one exit away, at exit 37.

The television station said the plane skidded onto the median of Route 287 and onto the northbound side of the highway. A wooded area was on fire as well.

Emergency vehicles from several nearby towns were on hand, and a state police helicopter was descending on the scene shortly after 11 a.m.

Witness reports

A Morris Township Department of Public Works employee, Mike Flynn, told Patch he’d been picking up leaves with a crew when the crash occurred.

“It came down here and there was smoke everywhere,” he said.

Flynn saw what he said appeared to be a twin engine airplane with one of its engines malfunctioning (authorities later specified it was a one-engine plane). He said it came down right in the middle of Route 287.

John Moran of Morris Township described it as “a split-second of a plane crashing, and then a ball of fire.” Moran said debris was flying all over.

Another Morris Township resident, Laurie Kaswiner of Trent Court, said parts of the plane went into her backyard.

She said she heard a noise “that sounded like a chainsaw” while the plane was coming down.

Bob Dudek of Pine Brook said he was driving on Route 287 when he saw debris falling off the plane, which was missing a wing. “How it did not make a direct hit on either roadway was a miracle,” Dudek said in an email. He said also he saw the plane’s engine smoldering in the fast lane of Route 287 North.

Lauren Strassberg of Cottonwood Road in Morris Township said the noise was so loud, she thought the plane landed on her roof.

Donyo Dougan, who lives on Wetmore Avenue in Morristown, was riding on his bicycle to his parent’s home on Foots Lane. He said the local road had become “a parking lot” because of diverted traffic.

Bob Angley, who volunteers at the Bargain Box Thrift Shop in Morristown, said he watched the plane spin while smoke poured out of its engine before it disappeared below a tree line, causing a plume of black smoke.

“All that was left for a minute was the trail of brownish white loops of smoke disappearing in the morning gray sky,” Angley said.

The plane appeared to have crashed violently into the median of the freeway, according to News 12’s report. From the degree to which the aircraft was demolished, it did not appear that the pilot had attempted to land or had control of the aircraft, according to the televised report.

An eyewitness named Tracy told the television station she saw the plane in a spiraling nosedive.

“As I got closer to my house, I realized, it’s just right in the back yard of my neighborhood,” she said.

She said her husband had been on Route 287 and saw much of the accident as well.

The most harrowing thing, the witness told News 12, was realizing the crash caused a death or deaths.

“I watched somebody’s last moments of their life,” she said.

Four people from the FAA’s Bergen office were headed to the site mid-day Tuesday, Peters said.

— John Dunphy, Rick Burchfield, Stuart Chirls, Jason Koestenblatt, Louis C. Hochman, Steve Johnson and Mike Pignataro contributed to this report.