Rescuers, Pilot Kept Their Cool
Seattle Times Staff Reporters
A LIGHT plane dangled from a power line near Boeing Field for hours yesterday before the pilot was pulled to safety. Here's how the accident happened.
There was a strange grace to it, a circumstance that awed observers as much for its impossible delicateness as for its stomach-tightening tension.
Two cranes hoisted their arms 80 feet high, and firefighters sprayed fire-retardant foam on fuel that had spilled to the ground. And up high, a small Cessna 150 hung upside down from a power line, not even by its tire, but by a tiny piece of metal beneath that tire.
Rescuers feared that something as unsuppressible as a sneeze could have caused it all - the plane, the utility poles and the cranes - to topple like a Christmas tree toppled by one ornament too many.
"Don't move," A.D. Vickery, battalion chief of special operations for the Seattle Fire Department, said into his radio.
"Well, I'd prefer not to move around myself. No," said pilot Jerry Michael Warren.
Just moments before he became tangled in the power lines, Warren, 47, of Silverdale, Kitsap County, had radioed for help when he lost control of his plane. A short time earlier, he had left his home at the Apex Air Park for his regular commute to Boeing Field.
Officials at the control tower at Boeing Field saw what happened: About 5:45 a.m., as he was coming in for a landing, Warren's Cessna 150 suddenly jerked to the left from where it was to land in a northern section of Boeing Field. A wake of turbulence from a larger plane pushed Warren's 2,000-pound Cessna off balance. It tipped a hard left.
"The airplane doggone fell on its left," Warren said at a news conference yesterday. "I just slid right into the wires."
As Warren's plane hung from the wires, he looked out the window and felt the plane bobbing slightly as if he were strapped to a bungee cord. "The nose of the airplane went back and forth, back and forth," Warren said.
Warren would later say the first 30 seconds after the crash were the worst. "I didn't know if the wheels were going to come off," he recalled.
He tried not to move but occasionally stretched his arms as he waited for help. "My legs . . . were totally numb."
Warren also was, somehow, bored. He thought about pulling out a camera to snap some photos. But he didn't want to risk tilting the plane off balance.
Help arrived quickly, just two minutes after he got stuck. Airport authorities were there first; the office was only 200 feet away. Warren looked OK.
"We looked up inside the aircraft with a flashlight," said Jeff Barden, an officer with King County Airport Police and Fire. "We could see the pilot's arm moving."
Seattle firefighters arrived next, and Vickery contacted Warren by radio: "This is Chief Vickery from the Fire Department. This is going to take some time."
Warren said, "I understand. I understand."
"I'm going to click the radio every five minutes so you don't think we've forgotten about you," Vickery assured him.
It was going to take time because there were a few dozen things to worry about, and dozens of people who had to act precisely and quickly. How to hoist the plane in case the power lines give? What if the wind picks up? What if Warren moves? The power lines already had been bearing about 2,000 pounds of tension; the plane doubled that. And what about all that fuel dripping from the plane?
The top concern was the wires. No one knew whether they were still energized. Because the Cessna was made of aluminum - a good electrical conductor - it could blow up from fuel that was leaking from the tank on the plane's wing, fire officials said.
To prevent a blast, workers sprayed foam under the plane. A crew from Seattle City Light arrived about 8 a.m. to shut off the power on the lines.
Tukwila firefighters also arrived at the scene.
Then a man from Anchorage called the Fire Department, apparently after watching the drama unfold on television. "I got some advice for you," he said to Vickery after being patched through to the scene.
The caller, who said he had had some experience hoisting airplanes, recommended that straps be wrapped around the plane's body and propeller and then attached to a crane. That sounded like pretty good advice to Vickery, and so he said, to himself at first: "Let's get some strap for this aircraft. The No. 1 rule: Do no harm. Prepare for the worst, and you start from there."
Warren's radio apparently died then. Rescuers had to move. Without contact, they feared Warren might panic and try to move. Vickery had already decided to rescue Warren from the plane instead of trying to lower the craft, pilot and all.
Firefighters wrapped a strap around the fuselage and the propeller, careful not to bump the plane too hard, careful even in their breathing. That took a half-hour. Vickery hoped the wind, at about 5 mph, didn't pick up.
"Our greatest fear was if a gust of wind picked the plane up off the wire, where was it going to go?" Tukwila fire Lt. Dave Ewing said.
The plane teetered as Ewing and Tukwila firefighter Rich Rees were raised in an aerial platform to the door of the plane. They opened the door and talked to Warren.
"We said, `How are you?' " Ewing said. "He said he'd like to get out of there."
Ewing and Rees instructed Warren to put on a harness supplied by the firefighters before unclipping his seat belt.
After he unsnapped his seat belt, Warren dropped to the roof of the cockpit, slid down the wing, onto Rees' leg and into the raised basket where the rescuers were standing. Then, applause.
The plane was lowered to the ground in a harness around 11:20 a.m.
Warren, who was examined at Harborview Medical Center, conceded during yesterday's news conference at the hospital that it wasn't until the two firefighters had helped him down that he saw just how small a ledge his life had been on.
"I thought, `I'll buy these guys a case of beer,' " Warren said.
Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.