MORRIS TWP. ‑ Five people, including two children, were killed when a single-engine turbo prop plane crashed on Interstate Route 287 near Harter Road at about 10 a.m. Tuesday, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
An NTSB spokesman said a conversation about icing between the pilot and air traffic control was the last recorded conversation of the flight before contact was lost.
But NTSB senior air safety investigator Ralph Hicks said at a Wednesday press conference authorities could not yet speculate on how much of a factor ice played in the crash. Hicks did not know how much ice was on the aircraft and said the agency may never know.
He added that authorities could not yet tell if the plane's de-icing system was activated before the plane broke up over Interstate 287 before plummeting in Morris Township. The agency is expected to publish a preliminary report in about a weekbut the report would not address the cause of the crash or any analysis, Hicks said.
Two of the dead adults were identified as investment bankers from Greenhill and Co. Bank in New York City, Jeffrey F. Buckalew, 45, and Rakesh Chawla, 36. Buckalew was the registered owner of the plane. Buckalew's wife, two children and dog were on board.
"The plane belonged to Mr. Buckalew, an experienced pilot whose passion was flying," the bank said in a prepared statement. "We also believe that Mr. Buckalew's wife, Corrine , and their two children, Jackson and Meriweather, were on the plane."
An eyewitness said he saw it come spiraling from the sky with "black smoke coming out," the dispatcher said.
Debris from the plane was scattered over nearby Springbrook Country Club in Morris Township.
Witnesses gave unconfirmed reports that a wing of the plane came off before the crash. There were no injuries on the ground, although several cars were stranded by flat tires. Other witnesses said the plane came down in a fireball and struck the highway's guardrail first.
The plane took off at 9 a.m. from Teterboro Airport in Bergen County and was on its way to DeKalb-Peachtree in Atlanta, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Jim Peters. Peters said the plane was 30 miles southeast off Teeterboro when the pilot asked air traffic controllers to take a higher altitude. Permission was granted but the transmission was garbled and controllers lost contact with the aircraft. The plane was reported to have reached 17,500 feet. Shortly after that, controllers learned of the crash from State Police.
The plane, a 2005 Socata TBM-700 single engine turbo prop that seats six, had been registered with the FAA for several years and Peters said its maintenance records would be studied as part of the investigation.
NTSB Senior Air Traffic Safety Investigator Robert Gretz said at a press conference in Morris Township Tuesday afternoon he had heard, from third-hand reports, that the pilot and air traffic control had a routine conversation about icing conditions about 14 minutes into the flight.
Gretz said the conversation about icing was the last before contact was lost and the plane crashed but he did not know how long the plane stayed in the air after the comversation. He added the investigation is likely to take from six to 12 months. "We're only in day one," he said.
Gretz said the plane had no flight recorder but did have GPS and he hoped information could be retrieved from it.
At an evening press conference, Gretz said a tree specialist would be on hand Wednesday to get a section of a wing out from the branches of a tree on private property.
Recovery efforts were suspended due to darkness at about 6 p.m. Tuesday and would resume Wednesday at about 9:30 a.m. after the morning rush hour.
Pieces of the plane are being kept on trucks and in secure lots in several municipalities' publc works yards. There is still much debris in the interstate median, where it will remain overnight. Gretz noted a state Police Patrol is on site to protect the area.
Anglin Co., an aircraft recovery company from Delaware, will be taking the airplane's parts to its Delaware facility for futher investigation.
Investigators will look at the airplane's maintenance, the pilot's experience, weather conditions and reports from other pilots flying near the area among other aspects of the flight to determine the cause of the crash.
New Jersey State Police Lt. Stephen Jones said at the press conference the plane, valued at more than $1 million, had a powerful Pratt and Whitney turbo prop engine that could take the plane to speeds of between 300 and 400 mph. Jones said the plane struck the highway in the southbound lane, narrowly missing a pick up truck. Jones said the driver of the truck is being interviewed and police would release details of the interview when it becomes available.
No one on the ground was injured, Jones said.
When the plane hit it disintegrated, the force of which sent airplane parts through the center median into the northbound lane. Jones noted the debris field for the accident ranged about one half mile.
"Someone asked before if any bodies were found in the cockpit," Jones said. "There was no cockpit to be seen."
Gretz said all the pieces of the plane and body parts might not all be recovered until Wednesday.
Jones called the accident "a horrible tragedy."
Morris Township Mayor H. Scott Rosenbush also spoke at the press conference. "There is never a good time to lose a loved one, particularly at this time of the year," Rosenbush said. He offered his and the township's condolences.
The plane went down north of milepost 33.5 on the interstate highway. The highway was blocked to traffic in both directions. By 4 p.m. Monday two lanes were open south bound, and one lane was open north bound. All lanes of traffic were open for the morning rush hour Wednesday.
Nick Somers of Morristown was traveling on I-287 South when the crash occurred. He said he saw a "cloud of black smoke" ahead of him coming from the crash site, near the Harter Road exit in Harding Township. Then between 20-30 police and fire vehicles came speeding by heading in the direction of the accident.
Four to five helicopters flew over the site, said Somers, including a State Police helicopter.