Virginia plane crash: NTSB to wrap up crash site, preliminary report expected in coming weeks

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Virginia plane crash: NTSB to wrap up crash site, preliminary report expected in coming weeks


Investigators examining the wreckage of a private plane that crashed Sunday in Virginia — killing all four people on board after the pilot became unresponsive — say they will wrap up their work at the scene Wednesday and begin planning how to take parts out of the plane.

So far, National Transportation Safety Board investigators have encountered difficult rural terrain and the near-total devastation of the plane, a federal official said.

A team began examining the wreckage Monday, trying to determine when the pilot became unresponsive and what caused the plane to veer sharply off course. The unresponsive plane prompted the deployment of six fighter jets as it flew near Washington, D.C., officials said.

Investigators are now looking into whether hypoxia – a potentially fatal condition caused by a lack of oxygen – was the reason the pilot and passengers were unresponsive to attempts to contact the plane, a source said.

The plane eventually crashed into a heavily wooded area near Waynesboro, Va., leaving a crater in the ground and a gray scene for investigators to examine, first responders said Monday.

“The wreckage has been destroyed, meaning it is no longer distinguishable as an aircraft. However, there are still several pieces that may be able to assist our fact-finding stage at this time,” Adam Gerhardt, lead researcher at the safety board, said Monday.

The agency said it will begin recovering salvageable parts of the Cessna 560 Citation V on Tuesday.

“During the next phase of the investigation, investigators will analyze production and technical records and conduct interviews,” the NTSB said in a statement Tuesday. The agency expects to release a preliminary report in three weeks.

The crash site is a long hike through densely forested mountain terrain, the NTSB told CNN. Gerhardt said the agency plans to helicopter parts of the wreckage to a secure facility in Delaware in the coming days.

Investigators are searching the crash site for a flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder, known as “black boxes,” although the plane was not required to have them, Gerhardt said.

No survivors were found when the crash site was opened Sunday night, officials said, although traces of human remains were found, according to first responders who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A family member whose company, Encore Motors, owned the plane told the Washington Post that his daughter, her toddler and their nanny were among those killed in the crash.

John Rumpel, who confirmed to CNN that he and his wife Barbara own the company, told the newspaper that his daughter Adina Azarian, his 2-year-old granddaughter Aria Azarian and the nanny were supposed to fly to their home in East Hampton, New York.


Adina Azarian’s father, John Rumpel, told The Washington Post that she and her toddler were among those killed in Sunday’s crash.

Rumpel told the Post he got a call from the FAA about 90 minutes after dropping them off at an east Tennessee airport. The agency asked him if he knew how to contact the plane, he said.

Rumpel identified the pilot as Jeff Hefner, according to the report.

The private jet took off from the airport in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and overshot its destination — New York’s Long Island MacArthur Airport — before turning around and heading toward Washington, according to NORAD and the air travel tracking website FlightAware.

As it approached the metropolitan region at an altitude of 34,000 feet, air traffic controllers, civilian pilots and F-16 pilots urgently tried to contact the unresponsive Cessna by radio, audio revealed.

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Six F-16s were launched from three bases and raced to intercept the private jet, John Kirby, the White House National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said Monday.

The pilot was seen slumped in his cockpit seat, a source familiar with the response told CNN.

A US official said the F-16s did not shoot down the plane. The official noted that it is typical for the FAA to call out planes if someone is flying unsafely.

Hypoxia is a threat when flying at high altitudes and can occur if a Cessna’s cabin is suddenly depressurized, according to aviation experts.

Randall K. Wolfe/AP

Authorities secure the entrance to an access point to the plane’s crash site.

Cerebral hypoxia can occur if there is a loss of cabin pressure or the aircraft reaches too high an altitude. The higher the altitude, the faster one loses oxygen.

At the 34,000-foot altitude at which the Cessna was flying, pilots have 30 to 60 seconds to put on oxygen masks if the plane is depressurized or at risk of unconsciousness.

The onset of symptoms is so imperceptible that it is difficult for a person to say when it happens to him. They may start breathing fast, feel dizzy, lose coordination, and experience impaired judgment. When the brain is deprived of oxygen for too long, the part of the brain that helps with breathing can stop working and prevent a person from breathing.

Hypoxia likely caused the 1999 crash that killed professional golfer Payne Stewart and five other passengers near Aberdeen, South Dakota, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators. Stewart was traveling from Florida to Texas for a tournament when his Learjet 35 flew off course for about 1,500 miles — while the passengers on board were apparently unconscious or dead — before crashing.

The damaged cockpit recorder did not pick up voices, but it did pick up the sound of a low-pressure alarm going off, investigators said. They said Stewart’s plane was likely flying on autopilot before the crash.

Investigators are now examining the function of the private plane’s autopilot in the Virginia crash, a source familiar with the investigation said.

One of the passengers killed in the crash, identified by her father as Adina Azarian, was a “very devoted mother to her two-year-old daughter, Aria,” her employer, real estate company Keller Williams, said in an online post.

Lakhinder Vohra/AP

In this undated photo, Adina Azarian poses for a photo in East Hampton, New York.

Azarian began working for Keller Williams in 2011 after starting her own real estate firm, which the company says is “one of the first female-led real estate brands in New York.”

“Adina was known for her dedication, professionalism and warm spirit. Her vibrant personality and unwavering dedication to her clients set her apart in the real estate industry,” Keller Williams’ New York office said in the release.

The nanny, who Rumpel said was also on the plane, has not been identified.

Courtesy Dan Newlin

The owner of the crashed plane identified Jeff Hefner (pictured) as the pilot in an interview with The Washington Post.

Hefner, the pilot identified by Azarian’s father, had flown multiple private jets after working as a commercial pilot, according to the head of a law firm where he previously worked as a flight captain.

Hefner was “a very accomplished and experienced aviator,” attorney Dan Newlin said. “He flew 25 years as a captain for Southwest Airlines and had over 25,000 flight hours.”

Hefner is survived by his wife and three children, Newlin said.

Just 15 minutes after the plane took off in Tennessee, the FAA lost contact with the small plane, according to a statement from the agency and data from the agency and FlightAware.

Shortly after the plane went silent, the agency alerted the “Domestic Events Network,” which includes the military, homeland security, homeland security and other law enforcement agencies, according to the FAA statement.

It is not clear whether the plane entered restricted airspace.

As the Cessna remained unresponsive and flying near Washington, D.C., the F-16s were “cleared to cruise at supersonic speed” to make contact with the plane, according to a news release from the U.S. Continental Aerospace Defense Command. in North America.

The F-16’s speeds caused a sonic boom in the Washington area, officials said, meaning they were traveling faster than the speed of sound, creating shock waves that caused a sudden and resounding boom.

Some ground dwellers reported being startled by the sound.

The U.S. Capitol complex was placed on “high alert” when a plane flew near the area Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Capitol Police said in a statement.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong source of information about the course taken by the private jet. The information came from NORAD and FlightAware.

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