A Fort Lauderdale couple escaped with their lives Sunday when their single-engine plane crashed into a levee in the Everglades near the Broward-Palm Beach County line and burst into flames during an attempt to make an emergency landing.
Pilot Kenneth McKenzie, 52, the former chief operating officer of Spirit Airlines, suffered burns in the fiery crash. He was taken to Miami’s Ryder Trauma Center on Sunday afternoon after first being flown to Broward Health North, said Mike Jachles, Broward Sheriff’s Office spokesman. McKenzie was stable, Jachles said.
Sonia McKenzie, 50, was listed in good condition at Broward Health North on Sunday afternoon, Jachles said.
The couple took off from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport in a four-seat Lancair LNC 4 aircraft and were headed for Lynchburg, Va., when they reported low oil pressure, Jachles said.
The pilot told air traffic controllers he was unable to return to the airport, according to Jim Peters, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. He told controllers he “would try to land on a road near the Everglades,” Peters said.
Jachles said McKenzie was attempting to put the plane down on a service road just west of Parkland and south of Loxahatchee Road, parallel to the levee and a canal. “They came down hard, and the plane burst into flames,” said Jachles. “Both were able to get out. Considering the impact, they are both very lucky.”
Peters and Coral Springs Fire Department Division Chief Mike Moser said the plane’s pilot made a distress call to the tower about 10:35 a.m.
Minutes later, when the plane disappeared from the tower’s radar, tower officials called 911, Moser said.
After the plane went down, a thick column of black smoke rose into the air, attracting the attention of several people who were fishing in the area, where Loxahatchee Road dead-ends into the levee and the Everglades.
One of anglers, Susie Hopper, 41, said she tried to walk down the levee toward the smoke, but stopped short when she heard an explosion. Hopper said she thought an airboat had crashed into the levee, not realizing it was a plane.
“I tried to walk up there and yelled ‘Hey, do you need any help?'” Hopper said. She heard no response, she said.
The first explosion sounded “like a gunshot,” Hooper said, and was followed by another about five minutes later.
Hopper said she called a friend, then heard sirens.
Broward Sheriff’s Office Air Rescue crews took off from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, saw the smoke and within minutes were able to land a couple hundred feet from the burning airplane, Jachles said.
Coral Springs firefighters used both foam and water to douse the blaze, Moser said.
Also responding were Broward Sheriff’s deputies, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Margate Fire Rescue.
The plane was so badly charred that no tail number was visible, Moser said.
The first firefighters on the scene were delayed for several minutes at a yellow gate on the levee that was held shut by chains, according to Hopper.
Moser said firefighters cut through the chains and then continued south on the levee to the crash site about 300 yards away. The survivors were standing on the levee when firefighters arrived, he said.
The FAA will investigate and the National Transportation Safety Board will determine the probable cause for the accident, Peters said.
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
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