It appeared the plane was descending for a landing at the Essex County Airport in Fairfield when the pilot pulled up Monday evening, Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura said. The plane, which had taken off from upstate New York, crashed moments later just north of the airport on a grassy patch surrounded by businesses and warehouses.
Manhattan rheumatologist Margaret D. Smith, 70, was piloting the four-seater plane and died along with Michael Ferguson, 44, and his wife, Theresa Ferguson, Fairfield police Deputy Chief Steven Gutkin said. The three were the only people on the single-engine plane, a Cirrus SR22, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Holly Baker said.
Smith was the senior associate dean at New York Medical College and was a professor of clinical medicine. The school had no immediate comment Monday night.
The SR22 features a parachute that can bring the aircraft to a soft landing if there's an engine failure, but it's unclear if one was deployed in Monday's crash.
The flight originated in Plattsburgh, N.Y., a city next to Lake Champlain close to the Canadian border. It was unclear what caused it to crash, authorities said. National Transportation Safety Board investigators were on their way to the scene.
Witnesses said they heard two explosions before the plane crashed. They said the wreckage became a fireball. Only the plane's tail section remained intact after the crash and the intense fire.
Witness Garfield Smith, who's not related to the pilot, said he and co-workers were inside the Ned Stevens Gutter Cleaning offices when they were startled by a blast outside.
"When the crash hit, you could tell it wasn't a car," Smith told Newark's The Star-Ledger newspaper. "It was much louder than that."
The workers heard another blast when they went outside, he said.
No injuries on the ground were immediately reported.
The crash might have been deadlier, authorities said, had it not happened on a Monday during a long July 4 holiday weekend, when some workers were observing the holiday and fewer were around.
"If this had happened tomorrow, it could have been a drastically different scene," Gutkin said.