Few people can claim that they walked away from a plane crash without any serious injuries.
But you can count 54-year-old Michael Oster, 58-year-old Jeff O’Connor and 51-year-old Frank Dombroski, all from Westfield, N.J., among them. The men were in the plane that crashed about 6 p.m. on Feb. 21 near Big Burn Mountain, west of Lake Placid. They escaped virtually unscathed, suffering only minor cuts and bruises.
“This was absolutely a miracle,” Oster said just feet from the wreckage two days after the crash. “We won the lottery that day and couldn’t be happier.”
The men were flying in a single-engine, four-seat Vans RV-10 piloted by Dombroski when they ran into trouble. Their flight, which had started at Somerset Airport in Bedminster, N.J., was supposed to end at the Lake Placid Airport.
As they approached the airport, Dombroski said the men could see the ground, lights and houses, but when he tried to turn on the runway lights from the plane, they didn’t turn on, he said. The men may have missed the lights but he doesn’t believe that was the case.
“We couldn’t obviously land at the airport, so we were really forced to overfly and either try to come back around (or land somewhere else),” Dombroski said.
Dombroski began to climb out of the area as he considered what to do next. In the process, the pilot said the plane must have drifted a few degrees off course. As he pulled up hard, one of the wheels clipped the tops of the trees.
“That’s what sent us into a bit of a spin, and then we hit another tree fairly hard,” Dombroski said. “But then the plane came down through the pines, and it really kind of gave us a soft landing here, which is probably the reason we’re here to talk about it.”
As they fell through the trees, the nose pointed down and the tail stayed up in the air, held firmly in place by a tree. The plane was at a 45-degree angle facing the direction it had come from.
“We landed, and we were all sitting in our seats,” Oster said. “We looked at each other. We said ‘Are you OK? You OK?’”
He’s still not sure why the lights didn’t go at the airport, which Lake Placid Airport manager Steve Short said worked later that night.
The questions surrounding the crash are now left to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident and is expected to have a report in about six months.
It was just the beginning of what would be a long night that didn’t see them get out of the woods until 3:30 a.m. Temperatures were in the single digits when the rescue started and dropped below zero later that night.
One the first things the men did when they got out of the plane was use a cell phone to call Essex County 911.
“They were strongly suggestive that we stay with the airplane,” Dombroski said. “We felt also that it was the safest and most prudent way to not get ourselves deeper into the woods. It was deep snow.”
Using a GPS, the men provided the dispatcher with their coordinates in a formula that uses degrees, minutes and decimals of minutes. But because two different formulas were used, searchers headed to the wrong mountain, miles from the crash site.
Forest rangers Scott VanLaer and Jim Giglinto headed on a 6-mile round-trip hike up the 3,895-foot tall Nye Mountain. They were on snowshoes carrying full packs loaded with cold-weather gear for the plane crash survivors when they left from the Mount Jo trailhead. A short while later, four more forest rangers followed them with gear to evacuate the men.
A state police helicopter also made an attempt to search the Nye Mountain area but was turned around due to weather and darkness.
As the men waited, they kept warm using items from the plane. They made a makeshift tent with a tarp and pillaged some ski gear to stay warm.
“We were calm,” Dombroski said. “We had water. We had Gatorade. We had granola. We had a fire extinguisher. We had ropes and some other stuff. So we weren’t hungry. We were just cold. You can’t bundle up enough in that temperature for that period of time without having the cold have its way with you.”
Eventually Thursday night, media picked up on the plane crash. The Press-Republican produced the first newspaper report online, the Associated Press’s put a news brief on the wire at 8:40 p.m. and the Enterprise followed at about 10 p.m. All reported that the crash was on Nye Mountain.
After the news hit the Internet, Dombroski said he was contacted by an employee at the financial software company he owns. The person saw the AP’s dispatch on the Wall Street Journal’s website. The three men then realized the rescuers were looking in the wrong place.
“We didn’t know what Nye Mountain was, but we clearly knew, based on what we can see on the GPS and on Google maps, that we were west of Lake Placid, and we called back to the rangers,” Oster said.
It was about 11 p.m. when forest rangers realized the plane crash wasn’t on Nye Mountain. Rangers Kevin Burns, Chris Kostoss, Pete Evans and Dave Russell were sent to the new site and began searching. They started into the woods on snowmobiles, following some cross-country ski trails then switched to snowshoes.
When the forest rangers got within about a half-mile of the crash, they heard the trio talking.
“We yelled, and they yelled back,” Burns said. “It was so faint because the snow levels just muffled the sound.”
Finally at about 2 a.m., the forest rangers came upon the trio sitting side-by-side on top of their backpacks and bags inside their white makeshift tent, just a few feet from the crashed plane.
“It looked like a great white sheet over the top of three heads,” Burns said. “It was like three ghosts.”
When the searchers and plane crash survivors greeted each other, the parties exchanged jokes, Burns said. Then the forest rangers gave the men some food, got them hydrated and provided them with the proper gear to get out of the woods. The group finally reached the road at about 3:30 a.m.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle and divine intervention,” Dombroski said.