At 10:04 Tuesday morning, the Socata TBM-700 broke apart and crashed onto I-287 about 300 feet north of the James Street interchange in Morristown. The NTSB confirms that seconds before the crash, pilot Jeffrey Buckalew mentioned an icing issue to an air traffic controller with whom the pilot was in contact. It was not indicated if that conversation was urgent.
On the interstate, drivers were in disbelief as they watched the tragedy unfold in front of them. "It was just a big bang," Thomas Randolph told PIX11 News, whose journalists were the only television crew able to enter the highway crash site. "And then, all of a sudden, it was a fireball and debris started coming this way," Randolph said motioning across the northbound lanes of traffic on I-287 to wreckage of the fuselage on the roadway, "And that debris you see in the road right there, I had to weave to miss it, and then it really caught on fire."
Randolph also gave his eyewitness account to state troopers on the scene. State police report that despite the flaming debris falling from the sky onto the roadway, nobody on the ground was injured.
However, all five people on board perished. Eyewitnesses to the crash who rushed through the woods to see if they could help, were among the first to learn the most tragic part of the crash. "I hear there was a baby or small child on board," Frank Herudek told PIX11 News. Herudek was among a group of workers at a nearby golf club who saw the plane trying unsuccessfully to break out of a 17,000 foot nosedive. The men called 911.
Investigators later confirmed that two children died on board. Merriwether Buckalew, 6, and her brother Jackson had flown with their mother, Corinne Buckalew and father, Jeffrey Buckalew, 45, who piloted the plane.
Jeffrey Buckalew was a managing director of the Manhattan investment bank Greenhill & Co. Another managing director, Rakesh Chawla, 36, was also a passenger. He died with the family of four, who lived on East 69th Street in Manhattan. They had departed from Teterboro Airport at 9:50 A.M. on their way to Atlanta to pick up Mrs. Buckalew's sister, who had planned to spend the Christmas holiday with her sister's family.
The plane in which they flew was an Italian-made Socata TBM-700, a single engine turboprop which Jeffrey Buckalew had flown many times before, according to the FAA. Investigators had to closely examine the burnt-up debris that remained of the private aircraft in order to identify it. They also had to comb a debris field that was approximately a square mile in size in an attempt to piece together the aircraft to help them figure out what had gone wrong.
In the meantime, the NTSB is also relying on eyewitness accounts to determine how the crash happened. "Looked up, [it] was flying over, it was smoking, and it started going down," Tom Rawding told PIX11 News. He was among the group of golf course workers who saw the smoking plane nosedive into the trees that are next to and in the median of I-287.
Some of the debris from the imperiled plane ended up falling into trees, and work crews will have to figure out how to retrieve the wreckage that's suspended 40 feet above the ground. In backyard trees about a hundred yards from the interstate, a section of one of the plane's wings remains stuck.
On the ground, where most of the rest of the plane came to rest in flaming, charred parts, eyewitnesses express emotion. "It's just a sad thing," Thomas Randolph said. "Somebody's not going to have a good Christmas."
The NTSB says that its investigation into the incident will last up to 6 months.
The accident caused miles-long delays between Exit 30/North Maple Avenue and Exit 35/South Street on I-287. The exits will remain closed as authorities continue their investigation.
SHELLEY NG CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT