SHIRLEY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Federal transportation authorities continue to investigate a small plane crash that killed two people and injured another on board when the aircraft plummeted into a residential neighborhood in Suffolk County.
The single-engine Socata TB10, known as a Tobago, went down shortly after taking off from Brookhaven Airport around noon Sunday. Witnesses said it narrowly missed crashing into a home before falling onto Helene Avenue in Shirley.
The plane came to a rest after slamming into a large construction debris container on the street.
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The National Transportation Safety Board is now collecting maintenance records to determine what caused the plane to crash less than a mile after take off from the airport.
However, there was no disagreement among witness accounts that the pilot appeared to avoid hitting homes.
“The witness gave a very strong impression that it was the pilot’s intent was to avoid his house,” Brian Rayner of the NTSB told CBS 2’s Carolyn Gusoff.
The owner of the plane, David McElroy, was killed in the crash. The two people also on the plane with McElroy were 61-year-old Erik Unhjem, who is listed in serious condition at Stony Brook University Medical Center, and his 60-year-old wife, Jane Unhjem, who died several hours after being hospitalized with burns.
Witnesses said they saw the victims rolling on the ground in flames.
Erik and Jane Unhjem were apparently interested in buying the plane from the 53-year-old McElroy, who apparently put the plane up for sale, according to local resident Sharri McGroary.
The small plane was registered to McElroy, a father of seven from Orlando, Fla. The flight was a test drive, CBS 2 reported.
Investigators said it’s unclear as to whether McElroy was actually flying the plane or whether Erik Unhjem, also a licensed pilot, was at the controls. Officials said they may never know.
McGroary, as it turns out, is related to McElroy and was shocked to find out the news on Sunday night.
“The pilot’s sister called me up last night at 11 o’clock and she was just completely shocked that it was my husband that tried to save him and she was devastated. We’re all devastated,” she said.
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Intense flames consumed the plane and neighbors raced to the scene with fire extinguishers and garden hoses.
McGroary’s husband, Patrick, tried desperately to pull McElroy from the burning plane unaware he was a relative by marriage. McElroy was their sister-in-law’s uncle.
“I just tried to get my hand in there to see if I could get close to him and it was too hot I had to back off — it was too intense I couldn’t do anything,” Patrick McGorary said.
No one on the ground was injured.
“I heard the plane really close to my roof,” added resident Lynn Berhman. “Then it like hit the roof and then it crashed on the tree and the tree was on fire.”
Chris Melendez was among the residents left wondering if they could have done more to save McElroy. The plane crashed in front of Melendez’s house with his wife 30 feet away in the driveway with her two children.
“He reached out and that’s what I’ll never forget was him reaching out,” Melendez told CBS 2’s Amy Dardashtian.
Rayner said much of the aircraft, which landed upside-down, was destroyed by fire, but the engine was “in good shape.”
The engine was taken to Brookhaven Airport for further examination while authorities worked to dispose of most of the other wreckage.
Jane Unhjem was an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Goshen Central School District, according to the district’s website.
School officials said the entire Goshen community is “deeply saddened by the loss of our dear friend.”
“Jane was deeply loved and respected within our district and community, not only as an educator but as a friend,” Superintendent Daniel Connor said in a statement. “She was a tremendous force in our district and the mark she has left will not soon fade. Words can’t express how sorely she will be missed.”
According to the district, Unhjem and her husband have two children. The district said grief counselors were also available at Goshen High School for any students or staff in need of support.
A preliminary investigation should take about a week, but a final report on the cause of the accident could take up to a year, Rayner said.