CLEARWATER, Fla. — About 10 people had enjoyed a day of golf and were having drinks inside a woman's mobile home moments before a small plane crashed and obliterated the property, an eyewitness said Friday. The pilot and two people on the ground were killed, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
The last of the guests had lingered to finish her drink, and she was in the home along with her host when it went up in flames, their neighbor Rick Renner told The Associated Press.
The pilot of the single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza V35 had reported engine failure shortly before crashing into the Bayside Waters mobile home park around 7 p.m. Thursday, the FAA said.
Firefighters couldn't immediately tell how many people were inside the double-wide mobile home. But Renner said he jumped in his golf cart and reached the crash site shortly before emergency crews arrived. He spoke with a neighbor across the street who had just left the party, and he checked to make sure other neighbors weren't in danger.
"It was just one big ball of flames," Renner said. "You couldn't even tell there was a mobile home there."
3 killed after plane that departed Vero Beach crashes into mobile homes
The identities of the victims were not immediately released and are pending positive identification and notice to family, Clearwater Police Chief Eric Gandy said in an email Friday. The aircraft had taken off earlier in the day from Vero Beach, he added.
The fact that most of the people in the home had left before the plane went down averted a far greater loss of life, Gandy said.
"Our thoughts are with the three victims and their families; this tragedy could have been even worse," the chief said.
Clearwater Fire Chief Scott Ehlers told a late-night news conference that the plane's wreckage ended up inside the mobile home, which was reduced to ashes in the blaze. The wreckage was scheduled to be removed Saturday.
The pilot reported an emergency to St. Pete–Clearwater International Airport shortly before the plane went off radar, about 3 miles north of a runway, Ehlers said. The airport is about 7 miles southeast of Clearwater.
An investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Clearwater on Friday morning to document the scene and examine the aircraft, the agency said told The Associated Press.
The investigation will involve three primary areas — the pilot, the aircraft and the operating environment — and consider the flight track data, recordings of any air traffic control communications, the weather forecast and conditions at the time of the crash, witness statements and any surveillance video.
Renner had been watching television with friends when they heard the loud boom.
"The house actually shook, and the windows rattled," Renner said.
Renner said the gathering's host was a "snowbird" who spent her winters in the mobile home park for years. "Everybody is shocked," he said.
Joe Miller, 72, lived next door. He said he was drifting off to sleep when he heard an "unbelievable roar" and was thrown to the floor covered in insulation and broken glass. Wrapped in a blanket and still shaking hours later, he told the Tampa Bay Times he scrambled through the wreckage of his mobile home, which was ripped apart by the explosion, and was greeted outside by leaping flames from the home next door.
Mary Fagan, 63, who lives down the street, told the Times that her mother used to own the double-wide. She said another family member who lives in Illinois now owns the home, and neighbors called her Thursday evening, saying "Your mom's mobile is on fire."
She said she rushed to the scene and joined other neighbors as they watched firefighters douse the flames.
After eight years in the mobile home, in a large 55-plus community off U.S. 19, Miller told the newspaper he has no idea what he will do now.
"The roof’s blown off, and I don't know what's left inside. I just know I'm lucky to be here," he said.