Gene Brown, a 78-year-old who has flown planes for more than 50 years, had been taking a leisurely drive at Wichita’s airport Thursday morning when he saw a low-flying plane crash onto the roof of the FlightSafety International building.
At first, Brown felt an impulse to rush up and yell at those inside to get out. But in as little as 10 seconds after the crash, Brown saw maybe 30 people running from the east side of the building and then more people fleeing.
What Brown witnessed could be what a fire official calls a silver lining in a crash that killed the pilot and three people in the building — that so many others got to safety before the damaged roof began to sag, forcing rescue crews to retreat.
If so many people had not been able to escape so quickly, Wichita fire Lt. Chris Fleming said Friday, “it could have been much worse.”
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At any one time, the building where the King Air B200 crashed and burst into flames might have 100 employees and clients inside. The building covers nearly 42,000 square feet. The simulator area where three of the victims were is two stories tall, with the simulators raised off the floor, Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said.
The cockpit simulators re-create the sensations and experiences of piloting a plane. Another building, south of the facility where the plane crashed, had about 110 people inside at the time of the crash.
In the world of firefighting, there’s a saying that firefighters are willing to risk a lot to save a life. But the intense fire and heavy damage caused by the crash made the structure so unsound that a fire commander had to order crews out, Crisp said Friday.
Still, the first fire and airport crews on the scene managed to rescue one of the most seriously injured people, Crisp confirmed.
Fire crews are accustomed to responding to calls to the airport, but usually the planes land safely, and the crews head back to the stations. This time, the crews coming in saw heavy black smoke.
Their first priority was life-saving efforts and searches, Fleming said. They beat the fire down with water and foam.
Fleming is trained in helping firefighters deal with the psychological impact of responding to a traumatic call.
The natural feeling for a firefighter, he said, might be to feel that you didn’t accomplish enough.
The message he has for those firefighters, Fleming said, is: “We try to find the silver lining. What is the positive thing? We’re able to rescue this many people, and that’s a good thing.”
Fleming said firefighters who experience something like Thursday’s crash are encouraged to talk about their experience and to keep themselves mentally fit, which can include getting back to healthy routines and the basics, like healthy eating and exercise.
Contributing: Molly McMillin of The Eagle
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.