A plane crash in Tuscaloosa County has killed six people, three married couples who had attended a dental conference in Florida, and left a total of 11 children behind.
“It’s tragic to lose these wonderful Mississippians. Deborah and I pray for the loved and lost, their families and friends,” said Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. “Life can be so uncertain, so we depend on the blessing of eternal life and reuniting. May God assauage the families’ sorrow and hold them all in the palm of his hand.”
The crash happened about 11:20 a.m. just east of the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport in Northport. The crash site is in a wooded field of Van de Graaff Park near an area known as Gate 1.
Tuscaloosa police Lt. Teena Richardson confirmed the six deaths. Northport police officials on the scene said the plane is not intact.
Richardson said the plane was traveling from Kissimmee, Florida en route to Oxford, Miss. when the pilot reported engine problems. The pilot sent out distress call, and the plane went down behind the farmers market in Northport.
According to Flightaware.com, an Oxford University Aircraft Charters departed the Florida airport at 9:55 a.m. but was diverted.
Three couples — three men and three women — were on board. Authorities have spoken with the pilot’s brother. Despite widespread speculation that the plane had direct ties to Ole Miss, university spokesman Ryan Whittington said those onboard are not affiliated directly to the school.
Ole Miss Chancellor Jeff Vitter said the crash was a “heartbreaking loss.”
According to the Oxford Eagle, among the deceased are Dr. Jason Farese and his wife, Lea, both dentists, a family member and employee of Dr. Farese has confirmed with The EAGLE. The Farese’s leave three children behind, ages 10, 7, and 5. The youngest just started kindergarten this week.
According to their dental practice website, Dr. Jason Farese was a native of Ashland, Mississippi, a 1997 graduate of Vanderbilt University, where he was an athlete. He obtained his dental degree from the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry. Upon graduation, Dr. Farese practiced dentistry at the North Benton County Health Center for two years.
Dr. Lea Farese also graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry with her dental degree in 2004. She is a native of Pearl, Mississippi and is a 1998 graduate of Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi. She also practiced dentistry for 1 ½ years at the North Benton County Health Center. She has been practicing dentistry in Oxford since 2004.
Dr. Michael Perry, a periodontist, and his wife Kimberly, who is nurse, and Dr. Austin Poole and his wife Angie, were also on the plane, the Eagle reported. The Pooles had five children.
Terry Lloyd, director of aviation for Kissimmee Gateway Airport, said it’s his information that the three couples had been in Florida for a medical convention. “It’s a terrible tragedy,” Lloyd said.
Officials at the Oxford-University Airport, which is owned and operated by the university, told AL.com they have not received any official information about the crash.
Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration arrived at the scene at approximately 3:25 p.m. As of 7:30 p.m., FAA officials had left the scene and NTSB officials were expected to arrive first thing Monday morning. Tuscaloosa County officials were still on the scene photographing and diagramming the crash site.
The bodies of all six victims have been removed and taken to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences in Montgomery for autopsies.
“It’s a sad day,” Northport Mayor Bobby Herndon told reporters gathered at the scene. “We want everybody to pray for the families.”
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox credited the joint efforts of multiple law enforcement agencies and fire departments that responded to the crash.
“It really speaks to the collective response of all the different agencies that were involved,” Maddox said.
FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said the Piper PA-31 crashed into trees on approach to Runway 30. The flight departed Kissimmee Gateway Airport.
Pieces of the plane can be seen from the park’s entrance on Robert Cardinal Road.
Van de Graaff Park is home to the state’s oldest iron bridge. Northport officials said that the crash did not damage the bridge.
A woman who lives nearby, Wykita McVay, heard what she described as a “loud boom.” She heard two booms, but didn’t think it was anything to be worried about.
She and her father said that loud noises are common in the area because of the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport.
McVay said she “came out [to the crash scene] to see what was going on.”
She said it was “crazy” that a plane had crashed just minutes from her home.
Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Ron Abernathy said that the crash is a “very sad situation.” He did not give any details about the flight plan or the plane’s distress call, but did say that the plane was a “small aircraft.”
“It’s very unfortunate,” he said. Abernathy added that the plane was a “short, short distance from the runway.”
As for learning the cause of the crash, the sheriff said that the crash investigation will be a “long, deliberate investigation.”
AL.com reporter Ivana Hrynkiw contributed to this report.
More information will be released as it becomes available.