By Emma Tucker, Rashard Rose and Pete Muntean
GAITHERSBURG, Md. (Newsource) — A pilot and passenger who were stuck in a small plane for nearly seven hours after it crashed Sunday into power lines in Montgomery County, Maryland, have been rescued, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Chief Scott Goldstein said early Monday morning.
Both were taken to the hospital with serious injuries, including orthopedic and trauma injuries from the crash and hypothermia, Goldstein said.
The rescue began at 5:30 p.m. when crews responded to reports of a small airplane that had flown into the power lines, according to Pete Piringer, chief spokesperson for Montgomery County (MD) Fire & Rescue Service.
When units arrived on the scene, they found a small plane suspended about 100 feet in the air that had struck the tower.
The pilot was identified by Maryland State Police as Patrick Merkle, 65 of Washington, DC. The passenger is Jan Williams, 66 of Louisiana, the state police said in a news release.
The fire department was in communication with the pilot and passenger during the rescue and nearby roads were closed, according to officials. The crash scene is about four miles northwest of the Montgomery County Airpark, state police said.
Rescuers had to wait for the tower to be “grounded or bonded” before they could get to the passengers, Goldstein said during a Sunday evening news conference.
That involved crews ascending to put clamps or cables onto the wires to make sure there was no static electricity or residual power, the chief said. The airplane also needed to be secured to the tower structure, he said. Foggy weather conditions in the area made matters more complicated, he added, by affecting visibility.
A utility contractor finished grounding power lines near the plane at 11:30 p.m., Goldstein said, and the contractor helped rescue crews secure the plane within the next 45 minutes.
The first person was removed from the plane at 12:25 a.m. and the second person was removed about 10 minutes later, Goldstein said.
Goldstein said the department regularly checked in with the plane occupants during the rescue and moderated the use of their cell phones to conserve their batteries.
Crews will remain on scene throughout the night to remove the plane and repair and connect damaged power lines.
Roughly 120,000 customers were without power Sunday evening following the crash, but all impacted customers had their power restored as of early Monday, according to the Pepco utility company, which provides electric service to roughly 894,000 customers in Washington, DC, and surrounding areas in Maryland. Montgomery County is just north of Washington, DC.
Schools in Montgomery County will be closed Monday due to power outages, district officials said Sunday night.
The district earlier said that more than 40 schools in the Montgomery County Public Schools system and six central offices were without power, affecting services such as maintenance, buses and food service.
Two hospitals, MedStar Montgomery Medical Center and Holy Cross Hospital, operated in a limited capacity Sunday evening due to the power outage, Goldstein said.
Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and leadership from Maryland State Police were on scene, Goldstein said Sunday night. The FAA put an aircraft restriction in place during rescue efforts, state police said.
The FAA said the plane is a single-engine Mooney that departed from Westchester County Airport in New York. The agency will investigate the incident along with the National Transportation Safety Board.
William Smouse, who lives about a mile from where the crash took place, told affiliate WJLA on Sunday evening that he was going out to dinner with his son when he saw “two big flashes” and then multiple fire engines driving by.
Smouse said the incident was “pretty scary” and that his house is located in an area where planes and jets often pass through.
“I think about it a lot, where they come in, and, literally, they are like 200 or 300 feet over us,” he said.