Federal investigators began the task Monday of looking for the fragmented wreckage of a Sunday plane crash in the Saint Mary’s Wilderness just off the Blue Ridge Parkway that killed all four passengers on board.
The Cessna Citation twin-engine plane left Elizabethton, Tennessee, and was headed to Long Island’s MacArthur Airport on Sunday afternoon when it mysteriously switched course and headed south. After being intercepted by fighter jets from Maryland’s Andrews Air Force Base, the plane crashed into the rugged terrain of Mine Bank Mountain in Augusta County, about a mile and a half south of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The crash site borders Nelson County.
The F-16 jets used to intercept the plane caused a sonic boom heard across Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Virginia State Police assisted the National Transportation Safety Board in collecting evidence and the four crash victims’ remains, including three passengers and a pilot. State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said remains found at the site were to be taken to the Office of Virginia Medical Examiner for examination, autopsy and identification.
A New York Times report identified two of the passengers on the plane as the daughter and granddaughter of John Rumpel, who told the Times the two had been visiting his North Carolina home. Rumpel also said his granddaughter’s nanny was on the aircraft besides the pilot. The plane was registered to Encore Motors of Florida, which Rumpel runs.
Getting to the crash scene was a formidable task, requiring at least three hours for investigators.
Air safety investigator Adam Gerhardt with the safety board said accessing the wreckage in a heavily wooded and rugged terrain complicates the investigation. Gerhardt said Monday that time is of the essence.
“With the passage of time, it is harder to collect evidence,” said Gerhardt, who added that investigators would spend at least three days methodically removing the crash remnants. He also said “everything is on the table” in the investigation, including the engines, weather conditions, maintenance records and pilot qualifications.
A major mystery is why the plane’s pilot became unresponsive and why the plane flew in the direction it did. Gerhardt said the investigation will try to determine when the pilot became unresponsive and why the plane flew the unusual track.
Gerhardt said parts of the plane will be removed from the crash site and taken by helicopter to a Delaware laboratory. The Cessna aircraft was not required to have a black box, flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder. But he said there could be “other avionics equipment” with data to assist the investigation.
Gerhardt said he anticipates a preliminary report on the crash in 10 days, but said a final report offering the accident cause could take 12 to 24 months.
The Augusta County Sheriff’s Office was notified of the crash about 3:38 p.m. Sunday, said Sheriff Donald Smith. He said 10 deputies and Augusta County Fire-Rescue were sent to help find the crash, but Smith said the crash scene was found Sunday night with the help of a Virginia State Police helicopter.
Smith said the logistics of getting to the crash scene proved difficult. “There is no quick way to go,” he said. The terrain makes the deployment of all-terrain vehicles useless. Smith said a mobile command center set up at a Blue Ridge Parkway overlook is there to help in the investigation.
The crash occurred just a few miles from the Montebello community in Nelson County.
Montebello Country Store general manager Christy Humphreys said she didn’t hear the crash herself, but others around the Montebello Camping & Fishing Resort and store did. Humphrey’s husband, a few friends working outside, an employee and some campers staying at the resort heard what sounded like an explosion, then sirens, and saw a jet and helicopters.
David Parr is the supervisor of Nelson County’s West District, which covers Montebello, Massies Mill, Tyro and Piney River and has some of the steepest terrain in the county. He said he was on the phone around 3:45 p.m. when he heard a jet, which he thought was odd for a Sunday. Then he said he saw the state police helicopter flying in the same direction.
Wintergreen Fire and Rescue Chief Curtis Sheets said he thought his team would be the first on the scene, responding with a fire truck, ambulance and all-terrain vehicle to a fire road Blue Ridge Parkway near Wintergreen Resort. But, instead, Sheets said he never actually saw the crash site — Wintergreen crews learned the area was further west and south and left around 6 p.m. after Augusta and Rockbridge county police and rescue personnel took over the search.
Sheets said there have been two to three other plane crashes in the Wintergreen area since he started with the department in 1999, and he had “no clue” the crash was national news when his crews were responding. Sheets said he couldn’t even send a text where his crews were searching. It wasn’t until he got back to a vehicle with satellite radio that he heard about a plane crash in Southwest Virginia.