Saturday, 2:15 PM
Investigators: steep descent came before Easton crash
By David Abel, Andrew Ryan, and John R. Ellement, Globe Staff
EASTON -- The plane carrying a cancer patient that crashed Tuesday was spotted by a witness spinning at least twice as it dropped from the sky and crashed, its right wing hitting the ground first as it exploded in a supermarket parking lot, a federal investigator said today.
Other witnesses told investigators that the four-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza circled overhead before plunging to the ground. Another account described a ferocious nose dive that ended on the blacktop parking lot of a Hannaford's supermarket.
A team of federal and state investigators arrived early this morning and began sifting through the debris and trying to reconcile the conflicting accounts of witnesses. The charred wreckage was loaded onto a flatbed truck and hauled to an undisclosed location where it will be studied.
At an afternoon news conference held by the National Transportation Safety Board, few new details came to light of the crash that killed all three people on the aircraft. But investigators did say that the damage made it clear that the plane's descent was alarmingly steep. The probe at the scene will last several more days, but a final determination of what caused the crash is not expected for nine months.
"The goal today was to document the scene," said Tim Monville, a senior air safety investigator for the NTSB. "Nothing has jumped out in terms of the investigation. It's still early. We still have a lot to do over the course of two days."
Investigators have located another pilot flying in the area who may be able to provide details about the weather when the plane when down. Some witnesses have described a cloud ceiling as low as 800 feet.
The plane began flying too low as it began its final approach for Logan International Airport in Boston, Monville said. When it was a half-mile from a radio beam that helps planes land at the airport, the Beechcraft was at 1,200 feet when it should have been at 3,000 feet, Monville said.
Flight Aware, a website that tracks aircraft, indicated that the plane made it just north of Route 128 before it looped back south to 495 and then north to Easton. When showed a graphic of the flight path, Monville declined to comment, saying he would wait for official data from the FAA. The investigator did say that he found nothing unusual at the crash scene.
The crash killed a Long Island cancer patient and his wife, along with the volunteer pilot who was flying them to Boston so the husband could get cancer treatment.
At the scene this morning, yellow caution tape cordoned off a quarter of the supermarket parking lot. Bouquets of brightly colored flowers had been left on the blacktop. Polina Ken, 49, knelt down at the edge of the yellow tape and placed a white vase brimming with pink roses and white baby's breath. The Mansfield woman stood up, paused silently in prayer, and made the sign of the cross.
"God bless him," Ken said, referring to the pilot. "How many people can you find who have a good heart to help other people in this world?"
The investigators also explored a wooded area across the street where it appeared pieces of the plane landed during the crash.
Easton police identified the couple as Robert and Donna Gregory of Riverhead, N.Y. They were the parents of 4-year-old twins, a neighbor said. The pilot was identified as Joe E. Baker of Brookfield, Conn., a US Navy submarine veteran with a flawless flying record.
Robert Gregory, 43, suffered from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, according to a blog written by his wife that chronicled his struggle with the disease. Several years ago, he underwent a stem-cell transplant at Dana-Farber, according to the blog.
The plane was en route from Westhampton Beach, N.Y., to Logan when it crashed, said officials at the nonprofit group Angel Flight New England, which ferries needy passengers for medical treatment.
The Gregorys, who married in 1997, had gone to great lengths to provide for his care. In her blog, she describes a postdiagnosis life of doctor visits and complications that included a seizure that landed her husband in intensive care.
"I hope one day that things will be back to normal," she wrote on May 11, 2007. "I would love to be able to sit up and watch television with him after the kids have gone to bed. . . . I guess I can keep hoping and praying."
Robert Gregory was a marine technician who worked on boats, and his wife was a stay-at-home mother who cared for her children, a boy and a girl, and her husband, according to a report in Newsday. The family lived in a red wood-sided ranch-style home in a tree-lined subdivision.
Robert Kirschner, a neighbor of the Gregorys, told the Globe in a telephone interview that the couple were devoted parents who were often seen with their children on a backyard swing set.
"They did everything with their children," he said. "They were good neighbors, and it was just a tragic loss."
Kirschner said that he did not know much about Robert's illness, but that Donna always seemed to be by his side, as a caretaker.
"It seemed like they were very close," he said.
FAA officials said Baker had a perfect flying record. His commercial pilot license was last updated in October 2007, when he passed a medical exam but was required to fly with glasses, according to the FAA.
Angel Flight requires pilots to be certified by the FAA, to carry liability insurance, and have clean flying records.
The registered owner of the aircraft, Janet Keene of Brookfield, said Baker had used the plane on previous mercy missions. It was built in 1956 and originally belonged to the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she said.
The plane had been consistently updated with a new engine and radio system and had undergone annual inspections, she said.
"It was really a brand-new plane; if there were any problems, it wouldn't have been cleared to fly," Keene said.
Baker, a Keene family friend, had also flown her family on trips, she said. The aircraft was based at Igor Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Bridgeport, Conn.
Friends recalled Baker, 65, as an elder statesman of town politics who volunteered on the Brookfield Republican Town Committee, the town Board of Education, and the charter revision commission, and moderated several town meetings.
"He was the kind of guy you could go to when you had a question about process or procedure," said Martin Flynn, chairman of the town Republican Committee. "He was someone who worshipped the process and followed the rules. He had opinions, but he put the process above anything else."
Flynn said Baker was married with adult children.
Brookfield Selectman Jerry Murphy said he was not surprised that Baker flew for Angel Flight New England.
"He was a guy who was public-spirited and public-minded," Murphy said. "Regardless of which side of the issue people were on, they all respected Joe."
Easton Deputy Police Chief Allen Krajick said he saw the plane flying low under the clouds when it appeared to "stall or spin."
"We're very fortunate no one else was hurt," said Krajick, a licensed pilot.
Bridget Dumoulin, 40, was shopping at Hannaford's for pizza ingredients for her son's dinner when "there was a big explosion and the building shook."
"At first I thought he hit the building," Dumoulin said. "People rushed over and tried to help, but it was just too late. The flames were too intense."
Bank of Easton branch manager Patti Desgrosseilliers heard a loud boom and looked out to see fire some 500 feet from her window, she said. "We ran outside, we saw the flames and the smoke, and we could just see the tail of the plane," Desgrosseilliers said.
In a statement, Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr., president of Dana-Farber, said he was "deeply saddened."
"This is a horrible, unexpected loss," he said.
Angel Flight issued a statement saying the organization's "sympathies go out to the families."
Tania deLuzuriaga, Emily Sweeney, and Michael Levenson of the Globe Staff, and correspondents John M. Guilfoil, Ryan Kost, Anne Baker, and Gabrielle Dunn contributed to this report.
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