CLEARWATER — It was just after 7 p.m. Thursday, and residents in the Bayside Waters 55+ community were finishing dinner, fingering bingo chips and stepping out into the cool night air for a smoke when a plane dropped from the sky.
The engine sounded like it was sputtering. The plane zipped over their heads, falling fast toward a neighborhood where manufactured homes are packed tight on curved lanes. From above, the park looks like dominoes laid flat across a table.
The pilot had taken off from Vero Beach about an hour earlier, according to FlightAware.com. Over Pinellas County, something went wrong. He looped and reversed.
He called out on his radio that he was trying to reach Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg. The pilot couldn’t see another runway. He was losing his single engine. Seconds later, a different voice broke through, swearing. The audio is choppy in air traffic recordings posted online: “Hit the ground really hard. It’s in flames.”
Later: “It looks like he went into a building.”
The plane, a small Beechcraft Bonanza V35, crashed in a thunderous explosion that shook homes in Bayside Waters and shot flames skyward. The complex, wedged between U.S. 19 and Tampa Bay, sits about 2 miles from the Clearwater Airpark and 3 miles from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.
“The ball of fire was higher than the pine trees,” said Carmen Rossi, 68.
“Sparks were flying,” said Marie Jacovini, 67.
Even a hundred feet away, Maris Avery said, the heat was unbearable.
The pilot and two people in the home hit by the plane died, authorities said. Investigators have not publicly identified them. Not long before the crash, police said, there were as many as nine people in the house. But most left, narrowly — and unknowingly — averting disaster.
At least three homes were damaged, one of them destroyed. No one was hospitalized, according to police. The Federal Aviation Administration said the pilot was the only person on board.
Friday brought few answers to the puzzle that began to reveal itself late Thursday under the glare of strobing emergency lights.
Improbably, the plane trained most of its force on just one double-wide in a complex full of them. It missed other homes and trees as it plummeted, ramming into a 1,032-square foot unit at 2647 Pagoda Drive — a few football fields from U.S. 19 in one direction and from the water of Tampa Bay in the other.
The blast caused the front half of the home to collapse in a smoldering pile. Two manufactured houses stood just a few paces right or left. So, too, did a flagpole in the front yard, and a pair of pines that loomed over the rubble.
By Friday, a federal investigator had arrived in Clearwater to begin piecing together what brought the plane down. The National Transportation Safety Board should produce a preliminary report within 30 days.
The agency typically focuses on three factors that cause crashes: the pilot, the environment and the plane itself.
Few updates on victims or cause
The plane, manufactured in 1979, was owned by Control Data Inc., a company based in Indianapolis, according to federal aviation records.
The company’s owner is a licensed commercial pilot who lives in Melbourne Beach, but efforts to reach the business were unsuccessful Friday. A call to a number for the company went straight to voicemail.
A woman who answered the phone for a number listed at the owner’s address declined to comment.
Todd Scher, a spokesperson at Vero Beach Regional Airport, where the airplane took off, said he had directed Clearwater police to a contractor who works on plane maintenance. A spokesperson for that contractor declined to comment.
Neighbors said the home on Pagoda Drive was rented out.
Reporters made multiple attempts to contact the property owners by phone and email. No one returned requests for comment.
Residents share rumors and questions
Residents of Bayside Waters strolled with dogs near police tape around the crash site Friday morning. The smell of smoke lingered on the breeze.
Neighbors traded rumors and stories about where they were when the fireball erupted.
Some had been playing bingo in the clubhouse. Others were sharing dinner, or settling in to rest for the night when they were startled by the commotion.
The complex advertises a “Florida lifestyle.” The American flag flies beside the Canadian, and it’s not uncommon to hear a Midwest accent in casual conversation. People live close to each other.
“None of us have slept,” said Rachelle Roach, 63. She remembered seeing a neighbor struggling to douse flames with a garden hose Thursday night. She went to check on the man Friday morning, but police turned her around.
David McAnally, 65, stood in his yard in sweatpants, watching others take in the scene. He had just turned on the nightly news when the plane buzzed overhead. He told his wife something about it sounded wrong.
“You hear people talk about: ‘Well, unless a plane falls out of the sky and on my head,’” he said. “Well, that just happened.”
After looking over the charred ruins in daylight, McAnally said, he wondered what firefighters would possibly retrieve from inside.
Times staff writers Lauren Peace, Lane DeGregory, Justin Garcia, Jay Cridlin and Ian Hodgson contributed to this report.