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UMaine Campus Mourns as Investigators Probe Fatal Plane Crash
11/19/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

The National Transportation Safety Board says it could take as long as a year to learn why a single-engine Cessna crashed into a pick-up truck on take off late Friday at the Knox County Regional Airport. Three fraternity brothers from the University of Maine died in the firey crash, leaving the Orono campus grieving and in shock. Investigators spent the morning at the crash site, examining the wreckage, before it was removed on a flatbed. Jay Field has more.

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UMaine Campus Mourns as Investigators Probe Fatal Listen

Here's what federal investigators have learned so far: At quarter of five on Friday afternoon, a single engine Cessna 172 was taking off when it clipped a pick-up truck on the runway. The airplane continued for a short distance, before banking to the left, crashing some 200 yards off the runway in the woods and bursting into flames.

Shawn Etcher is an air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington. Etcher says witnesses have told the NTSB that the airport runway lights were on at the time of the crash.

"We're still looking to see if the airplane was lit up, and also seeing if the truck had its lights on," Etcher says. "That's part of our evidence that we've gathered and we just need to go back and start analyzing it."

Truck driver Stephen Turner, who works at Penobscot Island Air, did not return a call for comment by airtime. But Etcher says the NTSB has interviewed Turner and is reviewing his statement.

The Knox County airport doesn't have a control tower. And Etcher says the plane didn't have voice or data recorders. "That's why we were looking at the wreckage very closely, taking lots of measurements and things like that," he says. "Because in the absence of any recorded data, the airplane itself still will show us signs, indications, to help us understand what took place."

Investigators will also look into the background and training of the pilot. Twenty-four-year-old William "BJ" Hannigan was a UMaine graduate student and one of three members of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity killed in the crash. Hannigan had recently earned his pilot's licencse, according to a friend of the victims, who spoke with the Bangor Daily News.

Etcher says the NTSB has already interviewed several people who knew Hannigan. "And we have been given a list of possible instructors that he had been with in the last couple of years. And we'll look back probably at least two years, if not three years, back into his training history."

The deaths of Hannigan and his Lambda Chi brothers - 22-year-old, fraternity President David Cheney and 24-year-old Brazilian student Marcelo Rugini - have shaken the Orono campus and its tight-knit greek system. Robert Dana, vice president for student affairs, says the university continues to make counseling and other support available to students and faculty struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.

"These young men were known far and wide and loved by all who knew them," Dana says. "Losing three of our own - it's almost stultifying to people. But they're gathering. They're coming around with each other, they're supporting each other. They're trying to make meaning of this and determine how best to remember these young men."

Dana says the university is working on plans for a campus-wide celebration of the students lives sometime after Thanksgiving break. Grief over the crash is also being felt in South Portland, Beverly, Massachusetts, and Muliterno, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, the hometowns of Hannigan, Cheney and Rugini - and at a farm in Nobleboro on the midcoast.

"He was a young man that just had so much potential, and he was a natural at farming. He could take any equipment and operate it and use it," says Bob Spear.

Six years ago, Marcelo Rugini came to the United States to work on Bob Spear's vegetable farm, as part of an international exchange program. Rugini loved it and decided to stay in Maine for college. The Spears became his second family. They took him to look at UMaine Orono, where he won a scholarship to study sustainable argiculture.

Spear had been talking with Rugini about his joining the farm full time, after graduating next spring. "His mother and father cannot speak English. They only speak Portugese," Spear says. "But he has a cousin who's been very helpful and I'm communicating with them, through her. His parents were planning to come in May for his graduation."

Spear says Rugini had already started getting the necessary paperwork together. But now, the farmer and his family, heartbroken themselves, are talking with the state medical examiner and the Rugini family in Brazil, as they all try to get a positive identification of the body and begin the process of saying goodbye.


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