PALM CITY, Fla. — A 69-year-old pilot died and a good Samaritan suffered burns Sunday afternoon after the man's single-engine propeller plane crashed while taking off at Naked Lady Ranch, a small private airport in Palm City for community residents, authorities said.
The crash and subsequent fire occurred at a private ranch on Southwest 48th Terrace, according to a Facebook post by the Martin County Sheriff's Office. The crash was at 3:30 p.m., Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham wrote in an inquiry by WPTV.
The National Transportation Safety Board, the lead agency investigating the crash with assistance from the FAA, said on Twitter it was a Commander 114TC, which seats up to four people.
NTSB investigators and the Martin County Sheriff's Office confirmed the pilot killed was Paul Skilowitz, 69, of Palm City. Skilowitz was a well-known businessman on the Treasure Coast, especially in the marine industry, the Martin County Sheriff's Office said.
Eduardo Casillas suffered burns in a few places trying to pull the pilot out of the burning plane.
"Out of nowhere, we just started hearing some pops," Casillas, who didn't want to go on camera, said. "It sounded like a plane coming down. It turned into a pretty good size fire in 10 to 12 seconds. It piped up pretty quick."
Casillas said the pilot was alive when he got to the plane.
"It looked like to us he was still moving and we just wanted to get in there, try to get in the other side of the plane," he said. "I had my knife ready to cut the straps and pull him out but the flames just billowed up and pushed us back out."
He said he breathed in fumes.
"It was pretty toxic to breathe that in," Casillas said. "That coughed me up a little bit, but other than that, I'm pretty good. I'm fine. You don't think about stuff like that. You just want to save them, get them out."
Roads near the scene were temporarily blocked off so first responders could access the scene.
There are two runways at the airport.
Chief Deputy John Budensiek said it looked like the plane could have been going northbound away from the runway.
"We can't even recognize the N number on the back of the aircraft. It’s that severely damaged," Budensiek said. "There was a significant amount of impact. You can see where the plane went through a wired fence which wasn’t that significant but because of the way that the ditches and the swells were built, it looks like he went nose into one of those swells, flipped his plane and caught on fire."
Michael Terranova was inside his home next door and ran over with a fire extinguisher.
"I saw the plane in flames, the wing," Terranova said. "I saw the gentleman in the driver's seat and I asked if he was alive and he nodded his head. And I tried to get in there, but it was just too hot. He heard me, that's for sure. He didn't face me or anything, but he was hurt. ... Like I said, I'll never forget it for the rest of my life."
Bluewater Sportfishing Boats has since released the following statement to WPTV:
“The loss of Paul Skilowitz leaves a void in the hearts of Bluewater Sportfishing Boats, our customers, friends, and in the marine industry. As the founder of Bluewater Sportfishing Boats, Paul brought joy and excitement to countless boaters and their families throughout his tenure of over 25 years. As we reflect on his incredible life, we find solace in knowing that his spirit will continue to inspire and guide all who knew him. We will continue to honor his unwavering commitment to quality, his adventurous nature, and his profound love for the sea with every Bluewater boat made, ensuring that his legacy will live on through every ride.”