'It was like obvious death'

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Daytona Beach News-Journal on December 4, 1999.

DeLand -- Four people including two flight instructors, a commercial pilot and a student were killed in a midair collision between two small planes Friday morning over DeLand Municipal Airport.

A two-engine Piper Seminole owned by Phoenix East Aviation and a single-engine Piper Cadet belonging to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University slammed together about 10:15 a.m. and plummeted to the ground, authorities said.

Both planes were believed to be flying in relatively the same direction.

The flight instructor on the Embry-Riddle craft was identified as Todd Landry, 22, of Meraux, La. His student was Eliza Lewis, 18, of Windham, Maine.

On the Phoenix East plane were Nicholas Simatos, 51, of Daytona Beach; and Abdulla Alhaj, 43, of Dubai, one of the emirates making up the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf.

An official with the National Transportation Safety Board said late Friday it was too soon to know what caused the crash.

Both planes were on instructional flights, said Tim Monville, an air safety inspector with the NTSB in Miami.

According to Monville, the Phoenix aircraft had filed a flight plan to perform a "nonprecision instrument approach" to a DeLand landing strip. This type of approach is typically used in bad weather, for which the pilot may have been training.

Weather conditions in Daytona Beach, where both flights originated, were not bad, authorities said, with 10 miles of clear visibility and a ceiling of 4,800 feet, at which point clouds started.

As the Phoenix East plane approached the DeLand strip, the pilot canceled the approach, saying he planned on doing "air work."

The plane was last seen on radar at an altitude of 600 feet.

Meanwhile, the Embry-Riddle plane had planned to fly from Daytona Beach to Leesburg about a 90-minute flight.

"The key now is to find out what the Embry-Riddle plane was doing before the crash," Monville said. He also had questions about radio contact between the pilots and the air control tower in Daytona Beach.

"This close to the airport, they typically would be talking to someone," he said.

The Phoenix East craft went down in wetlands about 500 yards from a ballfield at the Sperling Sports Complex near the northwest corner of the airport. The Embry-Riddle plane plummeted into a marshy area about a quarter- mile away, 200 yards from the intersection of Marsh Road and Matt Fair Boulevard.

Nearby residents and employees of businesses at the airport reported hearing a loud noise and seeing smoke and falling parts.

"I heard this collision and looked up," said Jose Melendez, who lives and works at airport-based Skydive DeLand. "The planes were falling, and the wings were falling off the bodies."

Moments after the crash, Melendez said, it was clear the damage would be severe.

"It was like obvious death," he said. "There was no way anybody could survive the impact."

Melendez and a friend, Marko Ivankovic, grabbed a video camera and headed out to the wrecks, getting there before police did.

At the Phoenix East plane, Ivankovic said, he could see clear evidence of severe trauma.

"I saw blood and bones all over the instrument panel and the inside of the cockpit," he said. "The plane was driven into the ground."

The planes had both taken off from Daytona Beach International Airport earlier Friday morning.

Both flying schools use the DeLand airport for "touch-and-go" exercises, in which the pilot touches down, then takes off without stopping.

However, DeLand police spokesman Cmdr. Steve Edwards said, I'm not sure if that is what they were doing."

All four victims were found strapped in their seats amid the wreckage of their airplanes, Edwards said. Earlier, witnesses who thought they saw a falling body had probably seen pieces of the engine, he said.

The victims in the Embry-Riddle plane were removed by mid-afternoon, he said, and the other two were removed in the evening.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Phoenix East Aviation stated both men on the company's plane were highly experienced" pilots. Simatos was a senior instructor at the Daytona Beach-based flight school. Alhaj was a first officer for a major airline.

Friends of Lewis who rushed to the crash scene when she did not attend class Friday morning said she was more experienced than most students, having flown for years before attending the college.

"She was the type of person everybody knew," one friend said.

Both of the student fliers, Lewis and Alhaj, were pilot-rated. Alhaj was training to receive his airline transport pilot certificate, and Lewis was enrolled in the commercial single-engine land rating course as a first semester freshman at Embry- Riddle.

Attempts to retrieve the Embry- Riddle plane were hampered by the marshy conditions. The woods, nearby residents said, are snake-infested and very swampy.

Around noon, the Volusia County Sheriff's Office dive team arrived to help extract the Phoenix plane and victims. The team, Edwards said, helped attach equipment to the Phoenix plane, which was mostly under water.

Late Friday, the DeLand police department called in a tow truck usually used to haul tractor-trailer rigs to pull out the Phoenix plane.

Although the area around the crashed planes was covered with fuel, authorities said there was no danger of fire. The state Department of Environmental Protection came to the scene to help handle the spill.

A skydiver parachuted into the cordoned-off crash scene around 4 p.m. He didn't disturb anything, Edwards said, but was taken into custody. The parachutist was wearing a helmet camera and appeared to be trying to videotape the wreckage, he said.

Embry-Riddle students standing near the crash scene said they were grief-stricken.

The mood on campus was similar, school officials said.

"I think people (on the campus) are in a state of shock," said spokeswoman Lisa Ledewitz. "It's a tragic event and we do have counselors on standby who are meeting with students, faculty and staff who wish to use their services."

The flight instruction department was shut down for the day, students said.

Friday morning's mostly clear skies provided good flying conditions, said Andrew McGee, an Embry-Riddle senior who showed up at the crash scene.

The DeLand airport is popular for training flights, McGee said, because it doesn't have a control tower and sees fewer airplanes. "It's less congested and more flexible," he said. "But it could be less safe because of that flexibility."

Edwards said no one could remember a midair crash at the DeLand airport before Friday. The last fatal crash at the airport took place in 1987.

In Friday's crash, the NTSB investigator said it would take two to three days to piece together the planes. A report should be finalized in about six months.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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