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Plane crash in Maryland: When making an emergency call, the pilot cites vision problems

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From the cockpit, Patrick Merkle estimated his plane landed 60 to 100 feet off the ground, attached to a power line at a 45 degree angle. Twenty minutes after the crash, with no ladder on site or rescuers climbing up, he and his passenger considered exiting the plane and jumping onto the tower.

“I just moved the panel that gives us enough room to get out,” Merkle, 66, calmly told the 911 dispatcher. “I think it’s safer outside.”

His single-engine plane became entangled in power lines in Montgomery County around 5:30 p.m. Sunday, and he feared the plane would detach from the tower. The plane was already moving with the wind, he said when asking for help. He and his passenger, Janet Williams, were getting cold. His nose was bleeding. She may have broken a rib. Both had head injuries.

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

Federal investigation underway into plane crash that hit power lines in Maryland

Records of the 911 calls Merkle and Williams made shortly after their crash on Sunday offer new details of the hours-long ordeal and what may have contributed to the plane’s crash on Pepco transmission lines. The crash occurred about a mile from their target at Montgomery County Airpark in the Gaithersburg area.

Merkle, who could be reached by phone Tuesday, said it was “absolutely a miracle” that he and Williams, 65, were alive. “How many people sit 50 meters off the ground and worry if they can even survive?” he said. (Maryland State Police originally reported an age different from what Merkle and Williams reported in the 911 audio.)

Merkle was discharged from a hospital on Monday. Williams was due to be fired on Tuesday, Merkle said.

The cause of the crash was not determined. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, said the investigation is ongoing and the plane will be taken to a facility for analysis on Tuesday. An update on the crash has only been expected for weeks, agency spokeswoman Sarah Sulick said on Tuesday.

Weather in the Washington area at the time of the crash was foggy and rainy, but it was not clear if those conditions played a role in the crash.

Merkle said Tuesday that he was waiting to be interviewed by the NTSB and declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation. However, the 911 records offer clues as to what may have gone wrong.

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

“Yes, absolutely visible…” he said. “We looked for the airport. I descended to the minimum height and then apparently descended a little lower than I should have.”

The crash sent overnight rescuers into a complex effort to get the couple and the plane safely to the ground. The crash caused widespread power outages, prompted the county school district to cancel classes and reignited safety concerns around a regional airport near which at least 30 accidents have occurred in the past four decades.

Rescue workers responding to emergency calls – including Merkle’s from the pilot’s seat – faced a challenging scene in the foggy evening darkness. The plane was pinned between high-voltage power lines after coming into contact with two high-voltage pylons. The wind picked up and the plane was so high that no standard ladder would do.

On the plane, the couple became restless.

“Please hurry,” Williams pleaded less than an hour after the crash. “I am really worried. The plane is definitely moving with the wind. So whatever they’re going to do, they have to start with it.”

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

At the emergency call center, Manion assured them that rescuers were working on a plan. She said she would stay on the line until emergency services reached her. When the two talked about clinging to the tower, she warned them about live power lines.

Pilot and passenger rescued after plane became entangled in high-voltage power lines in Maryland

The big concern, she said, is that “you’re going to get electrocuted.” She asked them to “stay on the plane, stay still,” adding that emergency responders were “working on a plan.”

In an interview, 22-year-old Manion said she took routine calls after the start of her shift at 3 p.m., a witness on the ground called and reported a plane crash.

“After that I picked up the phone again and then it was actually the pilot,” said Manion. She stayed on the line with them for about an hour and a half until communications were cut back to conserve her phone’s battery life.

When Merkle and Williams told her they were getting out, she contacted firefighters and was told the tower was electrified. Manion said she assured Merkle and Williams that the safest place was on the plane. The pair then remarked to Manion that there was no place to stand on the tower even as they tried to save themselves.

Crews had to stabilize the aircraft on the tower before attempting a rescue. The utilities had to shut off the power to the lines. Seven hours later, emergency crews used two jib cranes to retrieve the pair, and the plane was lowered to the ground around 3:30 a.m. Monday – 10 hours after the crash.

“They were pretty calm”, Manion said. “I don’t know how calm I would have been in her place. And that’s what I was trying to think about the whole time I was reassuring her.”

Dan Morse contributed to this report.

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