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2 rescued from small plane as it dangled 100 feet in the air after hitting a power tower

The pair, identified as Patrick Merkle, 65, and Jan Williams, 66, suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries and were rushed to a hospital , officials said.
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Two people were rescued early Monday from a small airplane stuck an estimated 100 feet above ground after it struck a high-voltage transmission tower outside Gaithersburg, Maryland, officials said.

The two suffered serious but non life-threatening injuries and were rushed to trauma care following their rescue shortly before 12:30 a.m., Montgomery County Fire Department officials said at a news conference.

The airplane was lowered to the ground by authorities about three hours after the occupants' rescue Monday morning. It was stabilized by a crane and the engine was separated from the plane and taken down individually, Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said at a Monday afternoon news conference.

The two occupants, identified by Maryland State Police as pilot Patrick Merkle, 65, of Washington, D.C., and passenger Jan Williams, 66, of Louisiana were initially thought to be unharmed. They were communicating with first responders by cellphone as they awaited rescue, state police and other officials said.

But authorities early Monday said that the pair suffered physical trauma during the collision, and that they may have also suffered from exposure while waiting for rescuers in 50 degree weather.

Officials said at a news conference that rescuing them was difficult because any power line near the wreckage needed to be tested in person to ensure it wouldn't harm first responders or the two on board the plane. The pair was rescued by EMS personnel using two specialty trucks with cranes, state police said in a statement.

Image: A small plane rests on live power lines after crashing, on Nov. 27, 2022, in Montgomery Village, a northern suburb of Gaithersburg, Md.
A small plane rests on live power lines after crashing, on Nov. 27, 2022, in Montgomery Village, a northern suburb of Gaithersburg, Md. Tom Brenner / AP

"There is no other way to determine if it's safe to access the tower until it is grounded or bonded, which means crews have to go up to the wires themselves to put clamps or cables onto the wires to then ensure that there's no static electricity, no residual power," Goldstein said at an earlier news conference.

Merkle and Williams' conditions have improved, but one of them remains in the hospital, Goldstein said on Monday afternoon. Officials would not disclose which of them is still in the hospital.

The Mooney M20J single-engine plane was reported down about 4 miles northwest of Montgomery County Airpark about 5:40 p.m. Sunday, according to troopers and the Federal Aviation Administration. The area is home to the community of Montgomery Village.

"Arriving troopers found the plane suspended in the air, entangled in a power line tower," state police said in the statement.

The aircraft had taken off from Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York, the FAA said in a statement.

The pilot appeared to be relying on the plane’s instruments as opposed to visual cues and there was fog reported in the area at the time of the crash, officials said.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash, but as of now, "there are no signs of criminal activity or foul play," according to police.

Officials said about 120,000 utility customers in the area were without power at one point late Sunday. Pepco, the Potomac Electric Power Co., said in a statement that its crews responded to the crash site and worked with authorities to expedite the rescue and restoration of power. Power was restored to all by 11:58 p.m. Sunday night, according to Pepco region President Donna Cooper.

The outage affected Montgomery County Public Schools, who announced on Monday that all schools in the district would be closed and childcare programs canceled.

“As of 4 a.m., power is mostly restored,” the district said in a statement. “After a widespread power outage, staff need to assess all buildings for their safety and other systems readiness, such as heat, water and network connectivity.”

Montgomery College also closed all campuses on Monday due to the the power outage, according to a tweet.

The plane remained on scene after it was taken down from the transmission tower pending NTSB inspection, said Capt. Prendi Garcia with the Maryland State Police.

The intersection that was beneath the plane, Rothbury Drive and Goshen Road, remained closed Monday afternoon but police are working to reopen roads safely.