GAITHERSBURG, Md. (WJLA) - A small plane crashed into a house in the 19700 block of Drop Forge Lane off Snouffer School Road in Gaithersburg on Monday, killing six people - three people aboard the plane and three local residents on the ground.
The two-story, wood-frame home was gutted by the crash impact and ensuing blaze. The first floor was nearly completely blown out and smoke drifted from a gaping hole in what was left of the collapsing roof. Two adjacent homes also had significant damage as the debris and fire spread.
"The plane sliced through the roof of one home, and the main part of the fuselage and the tail landed against a second house. One of the wings "catapulted" into a third house, where the majority of the fire damage occurred, Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board said at a news conference.
Montgomery County firefighters had the blaze under control within an hour, but it took a few more hours to sweep the homes and find the bodies of a missing mother and her two young children.
Authorities said it appeared 36-year-old Marie Gemmell and her two sons, 3-year-old Cole and month-old infant Devon, sought refuge from the fire in a second-floor bathroom after the plane's wing tore into their home. While the official causes of death weren't yet determined, investigators speculated it might be smoke inhalation.
Gemmell's husband and their other child, age 5, survived -- they weren't home at the time of the crash.
The plane was ripped to shreds when it slammed into the neighborhood about 10:45 a.m. Authorities said the pilot and two passengers aboard the Embraer EMB-500/Phenom 100 twin-engine jet, built in 2009, likely died upon impact.
ABC7 News confirmed the plane's owner, Dr. Michael J. Rosenberg - CEO of North Carolina-based Health Decisions, a clinical research organization - was among the three fatalities on the plane. He was described as "an experienced pilot." The identities of his two passengers were not immediately known.
Rosenberg's family, which lives locally, said they were "in shock" and also "devastated" to find out others were killed in the crash.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the plane, which originated its flight in Chapel Hill, N.C., crashed while on approach to the nearby Montgomery County Airpark. It went down less than a mile from the airpark and the house it hit was in line with Runway 14 at the airport.
Rosenberg had survived a March 2010 crash into some trees near the same airpark, totaling his $1.4 million turbo-prop plane at the time. "The pilot’s failure to maintain aircraft control while performing a go-around" was cited by the NTSB as the crash cause.
Witnesses to Monday's crash told ABC7 News that they saw Rosenberg's airplane "struggling desperately" to maintain altitude before going into a nosedive and crashing.
"It did not appear to me that the pilot was in control of the aircraft," said Larry Matthews, an eyewitness who lives in the neighborhood.
Fred Pedreira, 67, who also lives near the crash, said he had just returned home from the grocery store and was parking his car when he saw the jet and immediately knew something was wrong.
"This guy, when I saw him, for a fast jet with the wheels down, I said, 'I think he's coming in too low,'" Pedreira said in an interview with ABC7 News. "Then he was 90 degrees - sideways - and then he went belly-up into the house and it was a ball of fire. It was terrible.
Byron Valencia, 31, who lives nearby too, said that he was in his kitchen when he heard a jet engine flying overhead, and then a big thump shortly after.
"When I opened my window, I could see smoke over the trees and I heard a small explosion, like a pop," he told the Associated Press. "I could see the smoke rising ... It's scary."
Emily Gradwohl, 22, who lives two doors down from the house the jet hit, was home at the time of the crash and ran outside to see what had happened.
"I heard like a loud crash, and the whole house just shook," Gradwohl told the AP. "We got jackets on, ran outside and saw one of the houses completely set on fire."
She said planes fly low over the neighborhood every day but she had never worried about a crash until now.
National Transportation Safety Board records reviewed by ABC7 News indicated there have been at least 14 plane crashes in Gaithersburg since 1995. Two were deadly with five total fatalities in those prior crashes.
The most recent incidents - which didn't result in any fatalities - occurred in August and September, according to federal records, and were labeled a forced landing and a "landing overrun."
The NTSB's Sumwalt said his agency would look into everything involving what could have led to this latest crash, including crew experience and proficiency, training and procedures, equipment performance and weather.
"Our mission is to find out not only what happened but why it happened because we want to make sure something like this never happens again," he told reporters Monday evening.
He said investigators recovered the cockpit voice and flight data recorders from the downed plane, and that they were in good condition.
Air traffic control tapes obtained by ABC7 News indicated there were large numbers of birds reported near the airpark just before Monday's crash. It was unclear if birds being caught in the plane's engines played a role in the crash, but bird strikes have been a factor in other crashes - most notably the so-called 'Miracle on the Hudson' airliner emergency landing on a river in New York City.
ABC7 meteorologist Jacqui Jeras said there was light snow in the vicinity of the Montgomery County airport at time of the crash, with a temperature just below freezing at 30 degrees - but there were no reports of any icing issues.
Monday's crash was "incredibly unusual," observed ABC News aviation analyst John Nance.
"These jets are incredibly safe," he said of the Embraer EMB-500/Phenom 100, adding that lost engines or fuel starvation could have been to blame for downing the aircraft.