A small, twin-engine cargo plane owned by a Kansas company missed an elderly couple by just 8 inches when it crashed into their home shortly after taking off from Midway International Airport early Tuesday, fire officials said.
“They were in a bedroom next to the living room, and the living room is gone,” Chicago Fire Chief Michael Fox told reporters. “Eight inches. They were very lucky.”
The house is just a few blocks southeast of Midway.
The pilot, the only person on board, died. Firefighters worked for hours to remove his body from the wreckage.
“The floor of the living room collapsed into the basement,” Fox said, adding that emergency crews had to shore up the building before going in.
The plane is registered to Central Airlines in Fairway, the parent company of Central Air Southwest, which operates out of Wheeler Downtown Airport.
Andrew Towner, director of operations for Central Air, said in a written statement that the company is “fully cooperating” with the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, which are investigating the crash.
He described the pilot as a “team member” and said the company has reached out to the family.
“Lastly, we kindly ask for some time to process and grieve during this extremely difficult time for our company and team,” Towner said.
The plane, an Aero Commander 500, had initially been headed for Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling. But the pilot made a last-minute change to the flight plan just before takeoff and listed the destination as the Ohio State University Airport in Columbus, officials said.
Citing family members as their source, Chicago media identified him as Eric Howlett, 47, of Groveport, Ohio.
A flight instructor and married father of three, he had radioed the tower within minutes of takeoff asking to return to Midway because he was having trouble with his left engine. He maintained radio contact for a few more exchanges before the plane crashed about a quarter mile short of the runway about 2:42 a.m.
The plane hit the right side and front of the home. The residents, an 84-year-old man and an 82-year-old woman, were sleeping in a bedroom on the left side of the home, according to neighbors and fire officials.
A neighbor, Luz Cazares, 62, said she climbed over her backyard fence to check on them.
“A big part of the airplane was in their living room,” said Cazares. “I thought they were dead.
“I ran to the back of the yard, I jumped the fence and I knocked (on) the back door of the kitchen, and she opened the door and I took her outside,” Cazares said.
The woman kept asking her, “What is happening?” Cazares said.
Police officers brought out her husband, and the couple were taken to the home of another neighbor, Jeanine Venckus.
“They’re OK. Not a scratch on them, not a scratch on them,” said Venckus, who heard a sputtering noise before the plane crashed. “They’re shook up and bewildered.”
The man told her he had “heard a boom and went to get up and couldn’t walk into his front room or kitchen or anything, so they were quite bewildered,” Venckus said. “The whole right side of the house is gone. Thank God their bedrooms were on the left.”
Fuel was leaking from the plane, but there was no fire.
“There was some leaking fuel, but there was no ignition source,” Fox said.
Firefighters doused the fuel with foam.
Central Airlines has been incorporated since 1974, according to records with the Kansas secretary of state.
Planes owned by the company have been involved in at least two previous fatal crashes.
In June 2008, two people were killed when a Central Airlines twin-engine plane crashed in a Leavenworth County field. James Phillip Jambor, 24, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Murray Brown, 47, of Kansas City, Kan., died in the crash.
In 1991, two small cargo planes operated by the company were involved in a midair crash in central Kansas that killed both pilots: Dallas Ruehlen, 35, of Hays, Kan., and Steven T. Brown, 26, of Great Bend, Kan.
The corporate officers of Central Airlines are listed as corporate officers for Central Air Southwest, according to documents filed with the Kansas secretary of state.
According to Central Air Southwest’s website, the company operates a fleet of 32 Aero Twin Commander 500 B aircraft from airports throughout the central and southeastern United States.
Jocelyn Mejia, 24, said she could see the crash from her bedroom window.
“I was already up, tossing and turning, and I heard the plane and then I heard a crash,” said Mejia, who has lived on the block for 10 years and has two children.
“I kind of knew what it was and then, sure enough, like two minutes later, I heard the firetrucks,” she said. “I didn’t feel shaking or anything. It was just a loud bang. It scared me.
“It’s crazy. It’s right down the street. I didn’t think anything like that would happen, even living by the airport,” she said. “We were really lucky. Everyone here is really lucky.”
The Star’s Tony Rizzo contributed to this report.