“We’ve lost all power and we have no hydraulics.”
That’s one of the last bits of communication from a Hawker Beechcraft Premier Jet as it made its way toward South Bend Regional Airport. When the control tower asked the pilot if the aircraft was controllable, he replied, ‘Uh, barely controllable.’
“I was just sitting there in my chair and I happened to look up and I see this plane coming toward me,” recalled Mary Jane Klaybor, who lives on Iowa Street. “Then the big boom. And our feet just jumped right off the floor, it was such a loud noise.”
“My whole basement shook,” said Bruce Strnad, who lives right next door to one of the homes the plane destroyed.
Just like that, the quiet neighborhood near the South Bend Regional Airport changed forever.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” said South Bend Division Chief Scott Ruszkowski. “There’s no way you could mentally prepare to see something like that.”
Ruszkowski was one of the first to get there.
“[I thought] there’s no way this could be happening – not here, not in our city.”
But it was. Through their shock, Ruszkowski and dozens of other police officers and firefighters got to work – checking the plane and homes it demolished for survivors, evacuating more than 60 nearby homes because of a jet fuel leak.
“The first night itself, I think it was 25 or 26 hours that I didn't leave here,” Ruszkowski continued. “This is my old stomping grounds when I was a kid. Just kind of a little closer to home, if you will. I grew up with a lot of kids I went to school with in the neighborhood, so it's kind of a special place for me I guess.”
Iowa Street is special to a lot of people.
Frank Sojka built his house there in the 1950s, along with Stan and Mary Jane Klaybor. Their kids grew up there. It’s in a neighborhood where everyone knows their neighbors.
“It’s just kind of a homey place,” Mary Jane described.
But on March 17, 2013, that sense of normalcy was shattered.
“I was in the north bedroom and it clipped the roof on this end of the house,” Sojka recalled. “I just heard a dull thud and I came out and looked and I could see daylight here through the roof.”
Diana McKeown lived next door, where a bulk of the plane ended up. After firefighters pulled her out, she spent two days in the hospital.
Next door to McKeown, was Patty Kobalski and her 6-year-old son, Dominick. The nose of the jet landed in their house. They escaped without serious injuries.
“The startling thing was just to see that plane jammed into that house and to see that little kid. And all he had was a little scratch,” Stan Klaybor said.
Physically, the Kobalskis were OK.
“No one on the ground lost their life. But they lost their livelihood and they lost a lot of their life's belongings,” Strnad said.
Within 48 hours, the National Transportation Safety Board removed the plane then turned the properties over to the city for demolition. The city filled the holes with dirt but today, two garages still stand.
“They tried to break part of her garage door and they couldn't get in,” Strnad explained. “You can see they pried open her top panel.”
Kobalski’s car still sits in the same place it was when the plane hit.
Strnad said he chases away scrappers and thieves from both properties all the time.
“She said she’s missing a lawnmower and I’m not sure what else,” he added.
For now, those semi-empty lots are caught in legal limbo. McKeown and Kobalski joined a lawsuit against the plane manufacturer and the company that owned it for money to cover everything they lost.
That suit claims parts of the jet were defective and malfunctioned, causing the plane to go down.
Jim Rodgers and Chris Evans, men from Tulsa, Oklahoma who were passengers in the plane, filed the initial lawsuit. In it, they also name the Oklahoma company they worked for and the company that owned the plane.
Rodgers is bedridden because of a serious brain injury he suffered in the crash and said will never be able to drive or work again, his attorney, Fred Stoops, told WSBT. His medical bills are “upwards of a million dollars” and he is not receiving treatments he needs because he can’t afford them, Stoops added.
Evans, his son-in-law.
But until the NTSB figures out what went wrong, the case can’t move forward in court.
Andrew “Todd” Fox is the lead NTSB investigator in the case. He told WSBT he’s not done with the preliminary investigation because voice analysts are still looking into the cockpit recorder and testing is still being done on other parts of the plane. After the NTSB issues its preliminary report, it will release several others before a final conclusion of what happened and why.
According to court documents, Evans claims the plane had no issues from the time it took off in Tulsa that Sunday afternoon until the pilots started their descent into South Bend.
I noticed the plane suddenly shake, Evans said in court documents. I looked up and I saw that the dashboard, which was previously all lit up was now black and no instruments were illuminated. A red light approximately eye height in front of the pilot was flashing. The plane felt unstable. I could see the runway in the distance. I could see Wes [Caves] and Steve Davis talk to each other but could not hear anything they said. Just prior to what I thought was going to be our landing, Steve Davis leaned back and told us to ‘prepare for landing.
But until the NTSB figures out what went wrong, that case can’t move forward in court. That means people who live on Iowa Street are stuck with a constant reminder of what happened.
“I miss seeing that little one,” Mary Jane said. “He always played here around the tree.”
Ruszkowski’s on a first-name basis with all the neighbors and has also kept in touch with the fiancé of one of the pilots who died in the crash.
“She came to the Notre Dame – Oklahoma game last year and we met for the first time,” Ruszkowski said, tears filling his eyes. “[It was] um, kind of emotional. She wanted to see what happened, where it happened. Another officer and I brought her out here, we walked her through the scene exactly where we could tell everything happened, explained to her what we did with her fiancé, how he was treated. That was very important to her and rightfully so.”
Ruszkowski and many others continue to wait to find out what happened? Could it have been prevented? And who’s responsible?
“Everything is speculation, conjure, finger pointing, whatever it may be. So from a police perspective yeah, we want answers. And from a personal perspective, especially with family members yeah, we want answers,” he said.