911 calls provide witness accounts after fatal midair collision

Staff file photo by Bill Green

A Cirrus SR22 airplane rests in a tree off Monocacy Boulevard after a midair collision with a helicopter Oct. 23. Calls to 911 after the crash were released Thursday.

The first 911 call after the deadly midair collision near Frederick Municipal Airport last week came at almost the same instant an airport tower employee called to report the collision.

A recording of 911 calls made to the Frederick County Emergency Communications Center was obtained by The Frederick News-Post through a Maryland Public Information Act request. A call at 3:37 p.m. Oct. 23 came from a man who gave dispatchers the first report. A woman who identified herself as an air tower employee called another dispatcher just a second later, the recordings show.

“It was a green helicopter," said one male voice, and "... I was getting ready to say, man, it looked like an optical illusion,” said a second voice, just as a dispatcher picked up the first 911 call.

“I’m not sure,” the caller told the dispatcher when asked where the emergency was. “I believe over the Frederick Fairgrounds, possibly a helicopter and a plane has collided near the airport or the fairground.”

Another dispatcher was already taking down details from the air tower employee while the first caller explained how he thought he saw a parachute in the sky immediately after the collision.

Brian Rayner, the National Transportation Safety Board's lead investigator for the collision, later confirmed that the parachute was an onboard safety device designed to help stabilize and safely land the airplane, a Cirrus SR22 propeller plane, but in the frantic moments after the collision, even the air tower employee was unsure whether the parachute came from the plane or a passenger.

“Yes, it appears the aircraft, it appears the pilot ejected, uh, I did see a parachute, not sure if it was a collision,” the woman from the tower said between questions from dispatchers picked up in the 911 call recordings. “... Um, the aircraft appears to have crashed approximately a half a mile west of the field, it is just off of the airfield. If the emergency vehicles proceed to the field, we can direct them, it’s over by the advance helicopter training.”

Kristie Dutrow, quality assurance and training coordinator with the emergency communications center, said at least one 911 call was redacted from the recordings given to The News-Post due to health privacy concerns, but the newspaper received recordings of 10 calls from nine witnesses and the air tower employee.

In one of the last calls, a woman described the collision.

“I actually watched it while it happened, in other words, the plane veered and hit the helicopter straight on,” the woman told dispatchers, explaining how she had tried to call 911 earlier but was not able to get through until her second attempt at 3:43 p.m.

“Yeah, we’ve received multiple calls,” a dispatcher told the woman during the brief conversation. "We have actually a couple units that are there now and a lot more on the way."

After the first several calls, dispatchers began telling callers that they were aware of the collision and advising them that emergency rescue crews and police were either already arriving or on their way to the scene. Several dispatchers told callers not to approach the crashed aircraft and to keep others from the scene until rescue crews could arrive.

One caller, who saw the collision from the McDonald's at East Patrick Street and Key Avenue, was able to accurately identify both aircraft models and even began explaining how the parachute that deployed was likely from the airplane and not an ejected pilot.

“I think a Cirrus,” the man told a dispatcher after identifying the helicopter as an R44 and being asked about the plane. “Because it had a parachute, it was able to, its parachute deployed — which is a thing it has.”

“Is the aircraft on fire?” the dispatcher asked the man.

“Uh, no, I cannot tell because I can’t see smoke from either place from where I’m standing,” the man said as the siren of a rescue vehicle could be heard in the background. “Emergency guys are coming now.”

All three men who were in the helicopter at the time of the collision, including two experienced pilots, were killed. The helicopter was being leased by Advanced Helicopter Concepts and an AHC instructor, Christopher D. Parsons, 29, was one of the men killed, according to a company spokesman.

Also killed were Colorado resident William Jenkins, 47, and Breandan J. MacFawn, 35, of Cumberland. Chris Hollingshead, an AHC spokesman, said Jenkins was training to rent the helicopter, while MacFawn was riding in the helicopter as a passenger.

At one point after the crash, a 911 call came from a man who said he was inside and did not witness the collision, but a man who had seen everything ran inside and told him about it.

“Somebody just came in and told me about it.... All’s they said was they saw the guy jump out, too. With a parachute,” the man told the dispatcher.

One of the last calls came from a man who identified himself as one of the earlier callers. He told dispatchers that he had gotten closer to the treeline off Monocacy Boulevard where the plane crashed and spotted one of the occupants trapped in a tree.

“I see where the pilot is, he’s in the tree, he’s all right, but he’s hanging in the tree,” the man said in the recording.

“OK, and do you know where is the tree located that the pilot is in?” the dispatcher asked.

“It’s uh, actually, there’s an ambulance,” the man said. “They should be about, just pulled in the field, they’re about 50 feet in front of him.”

Both occupants of the airplane, later identified as the pilot, Scott V. Graeves, 55, of Brookeville, and Gilbert L. Porter, 75, of Sandy Spring, were taken to Meritus Medical Center and released after receiving treatment for minor injuries, according to Maryland State Police and the NTSB.

Officials have not yet clarified who was piloting the helicopter at the time of the collision or what exactly happened leading up to the collision, but Rayner said he was not aware of any distress calls from either craft.

Rayner completed his preliminary report earlier this week, he said, and submitted it to his supervisors for review, adding that he was hopeful that report would be available to the public by today. 

Follow Jeremy Arias on Twitter: @Jarias_Prime.

Jeremy Arias is the Frederick city and government reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

(1) comment

Extra Ignored

Untrained observers did a better job reporting this event than did the tower employee who should have training in handling emergency situations.

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