What a day it was to be. Their flights Saturday morning out of a small Lancaster airport in single-engine aircraft would introduce them to recreational flight.
But soon after takeoff, the two planes collided. A 9-year-old girl walked away safely. The other child, a boy, was killed.
During a news conference Sunday in Lancaster, the pilot of the ill-fated plane was identified as Anthony Mercurio, 78, and his passenger, James Metz, 14. Piloting the plane that landed safely was Kevin D’Angelo, 59, of Orchard Park, officials said. His passenger was not identified.
The two youngsters and volunteer pilots were taking part in an event at the Buffalo-Lancaster Regional Airport designed to introduce young people to the thrill of flying.
Witnesses were shocked.
“It was awful,” said Patricia Harmon, who heard the collision and looked up.
On a sun-splashed autumn morning, Harmon was working in her yard on Town Line Road when she heard a crack from above. She looked up to see two small airplanes in distress after clipping one another.
One, an amateur-built Searey, spun off to the east and went out of view. The other, a Cessna 172, plummeted to the earth in front of her house, and she heard it slam to the ground behind a thicket of trees hundreds of yards off.
She called 911, of course. And later, as police and firefighters crowded the street, Harmon hoped aloud that no children were on those planes.
But there had been.
The bodies of the boy and his pilot were found with their arms crossed in front of them, as if bracing for the impact, said a person who reached the crumpled aircraft. The boy was a student in the Lancaster School District.
“Our hearts go out to the family, friends and teachers of our student,” Lancaster Superintendent Michael J. Vallely wrote in an open letter posted on the district’s website. “On behalf of the board of education, our entire school district, myself and my family, I would like to express our sincere condolences to all those affected by this loss. As a parent, there is no greater loss than the loss of a child. As a superintendent, the scale of loss to our school community is devastating.”
Crisis counselors will be available to students and staff, he said.
The other pilot put his plane down in a farm field in Alden as it started breaking apart, scattering bits of debris through residential yards.
He and the girl walked away uninjured.
Some 60 kids between the ages of 7 to 17 turned out at the small airport on Walden Avenue to take flight on a gorgeous Saturday morning as part of this Young Eagles rally.
Flights began around 9 a.m., organizers said.
Parents signed a release form before their kids were paired up with one of the area pilots who volunteered both their time and planes to show their young passengers what it’s like to fly, said Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the aviation group.
The kids were shown around the aircraft and how it works before they were taken on 15- to 20-minute flights.
Their parents waited for them below at the airport.
The event came to a tragic end when the Cessna and Searey collided in the day’s brilliant sunshine. It was about 10:40 a.m. and six miles east-southeast of the small Lancaster airfield, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Up and down Town Line Road, the reaction was the same as stunned neighbors learned that children out for an adventure were up in those airplanes. Chins trembled. Tears formed.
“Oh, God,” someone said.
And small groups of people went quiet.
Word reached the Lancaster airport, where both planes had taken off with their young passengers. A mother collapsed and became inconsolable, one official said. A father drove to Town Line Road, then fought through the tangle of tree limbs and branches to reach the scene himself, said a neighbor who watched the effort.
David Sienkiewicz, who lives at Town Line Road and Jane Drive, helped clear away limbs and brush so the rescuers could make their way to the Cessna. He saw the tail standing straight up against the blue sky and realized survival would have been unlikely. Then he was told he should go, and he did.
Sienkiewicz’s father-in-law lives over on Kieffer Road in Alden. Allen Wadsworth also heard a crack from above and looked up to see the two planes trying to right themselves.
“I heard this crashing noise, and looked up,” Wadsworth said. “I saw a plane as I looked toward Town Line Road. It veered off toward the right. The other plane flipped and spiraled down to the ground. I heard the thud.”
Concerned about his daughter and son-in-law, Wadsworth then drove toward Town Line Road, to make sure they were safe. He did not know the pilot of the second aircraft was sputtering to an emergency landing in a farm field off of Kieffer Road, not far from his home.
“My heart goes out to the families,” said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who arrived at the scene Saturday afternoon. Earlier in the day, he tweeted out his hope that people leave the plane debris where it lay so it can be examined by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators who are expected to arrive today.
Because Town Line Road splits the towns of Alden and Lancaster, two police agencies were involved. Lancaster Police Chief Gerald J. Gill Jr. said he was unable to say when he would be able to release the identities of the victims who died in his town.
Capt. Gregory Savage of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, which took control of the scene on Kieffer Road, said the pilot who survived could not initially explain the event.
“He himself, when I spoke to him, was not exactly sure what had happened,” Savage told reporters.
The Experimental Aircraft Association released a statement saying that its thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the pilot and the boy.
“It’s a very sad time when you have a very rare incident like this,” Knapinski said. “You feel for not only the families of the pilot and the person involved, but all the people that work so hard to promote aviation and make these events possible for young people.”
The organization was founded in the 1950s by a small group of people who built and restored aircraft, but has grown to 185,000 members around the world who are interested in recreational aviation, Knapinski said.
It started the Young Eagles program in 1992, he said. Since then, the program has taken up nearly 1.9 million children.
“It’s a wonderful program,” said Paul Pedersen, who oversees the local chapter. “It’s relatively safe. Safer than driving in a car really.”
There was one other fatal crash involving the Young Eagles program, Knapinski said. A pilot and his two young passengers were killed in Washington in 2006, he said.
email: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com Buffalo News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski and News reporter Tiffany Lankes contributed to this story.