CLEARWATER — Just after 7 p.m. Thursday, residents of the Bayside Waters 55+ community were finishing dinner, fingering bingo chips and stepping out into the cold air for a smoke when a plane fell from the sky.
I heard the sound of the engine sputtering. The plane plummeted toward a neighborhood of tightly packed manufactured homes along curving paths. From above, the park looks like dominoes laid across a table.
The pilot took off from Vero Beach an hour early FlightAware.com. In Pinellas County, something went wrong. He spun around and turned upside down.
He called on his radio that he was trying to reach Albert Witt Airport in St. Petersburg. The pilot could not see another runway. He was losing his single engine. A few seconds later, a strange voice broke in, swearing. The audio in flight logs posted online is garbled: “Hit the ground too hard. It's on fire. “
Then: “It looks like he went into a building.”
The plane, a small Beechcraft Bonanza V35, shot skyward, shaking houses in Bayside Waters. Located between US 19 and Tampa Bay, the campus is 2 miles from Clearwater Airpark and 3 miles from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.
“The fireball was bigger than the pine trees,” said 68-year-old Carmen Rossi.
“Sparks were flying,” said Mary Jacovini, 67.
Even a hundred feet away, the heat was unbearable, said Maurice Avery.
Officials said the pilot and two occupants of the plane were killed in the crash. Investigators have not publicly identified them. Police said up to nine people were in the home shortly before the crash. But much of the left narrowly — and unwittingly — averts disaster.
At least three houses were damaged, one of which was destroyed. No one was hospitalized, according to police. The Federal Aviation Administration said there was only one pilot on board.
Friday brought some answers to a puzzle that began to reveal itself under the glow of emergency lights late Thursday.
Presumably, the aircraft spent most of its training on a single double-wide. It missed other houses and trees as it crashed into a 1,032-square-foot unit at 2647 Pagoda Drive — a few football fields from US 19 in one direction and the waters of Tampa Bay in the other.
The blast caused the front part of the house to collapse in smoke. Two manufactured houses stood a few feet to the right or left. So he made a flagpole in the front yard and a couple of Norway pine trees over the ruins.
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By Friday, a federal investigator had arrived in Clearwater and began piecing together what brought down the plane. The National Transportation Safety Board has to submit a preliminary report within 30 days.
The agency focuses on three factors that typically cause accidents: the pilot, the environment and the aircraft.
Some notice of victims or cause
According to federal aviation records, the plane, manufactured in 1979, is owned by Indianapolis-based Control Data Inc.
The company's owner is a licensed commercial pilot who lives in Melbourne Beach, but efforts to reach the business were unsuccessful on Friday. A call to the number for the company went straight to voicemail.
A woman who answered the phone at a number listed at the owner's address declined to comment.
Todd Scher, a spokesman for Vero Beach Regional Airport, where the plane took off, said Clearwater police were dispatched to a contractor working on aircraft maintenance. A spokesman for the contractor declined to comment.
Neighbors said the house on Pagoda Drive was rented out.
Reporters made several attempts to contact the property owners by phone and email. None returned requests for comment.
Residents share rumors and questions
Residents of Bayside Waters walked their dogs near police tape around the crash site Friday morning. The smell of smoke lingered in the air.
Neighbors traded rumors and stories about where they were when the fireball exploded.
Some were playing bingo in the clubhouse. Others shared dinner, or settled in for the night, startled by the confusion.
The campus promotes the “Florida lifestyle.” The American flag flies next to the Canadian one, and it's not unusual to hear a Midwestern accent in casual conversation. People live close to each other.
“None of us slept,” said 63-year-old Rachel Roche. She recalled a neighbor struggling to put out the fire with a garden hose Thursday night. She went to check on the man on Friday morning, but police turned her away.
David McNally, 65, stood in his yard in sweatpants and watched as others took in the scene. He was on the nightly news when the plane roared overhead. He told his wife that something was wrong.
“Unless a plane falls out of the sky on my head, you hear people talking,” he said. “Well, it just happened.”
After looking at the charred wreckage during the day, McNally said he wondered what firefighters would find inside.
Times staff writers Lauren Pease, Lane DiGregory, Justin Garcia, Jay Gridlin and Ian Hodgson contributed to this report.