Fremont plane crash kills six

FREMONT Garrett Walker knew something was wrong as soon as he saw the plane. Looking
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

 

FREMONT

Garrett Walker knew something was wrong as soon as he saw the plane.

Looking out his car window, the 16-year-old Fremont resident saw a plane wobbling out of control.

"I looked out ... and thought, that's very low," he said, estimating the plane barely reached the top of the trees.

Seconds later he heard a sound like a firecracker going off. He knew he'd just witnessed a catastrophe.

The single-engine airplane crashed Sunday afternoon in a residential neighborhood in Fremont. Its pilot and five passengers -- including the husband of a local judge candidate, a retired state legislator and a 4-year-old girl -- perished in the fiery crash.

Federal Aviation Administration officials and National Transportation Safety Board inspectors continue to investigate the cause of the crash, but witness statements suggest mechanical error might have played a role.

"From what I understand they were having troubles with the engine," said Ohio State Highway Patrol Sgt. Brett Gockstetter. "Witnesses said they heard it stalling out."

Moments after these witnesses heard telltale sounds of a plane in trouble, it was over.

Robert "Red" Haslinger had just returned from the annual Fremont Lions Club Fly-In Breakfast when he saw flames engulf the plane.

"There was a first explosion and that ignited the aviation fuel," he said. "That's when we had a total sense of helplessness in a helpless situation. ... I knew people were in that plane."

The pilot of the Cessna 68 was the owner of the Fremont Progress Airport, 86-year-old Gene Damschroder. Damschroder was a member of the Ohio House of Representatives from 1973 to 1983.

The plane was also carrying Bill Ansted, the husband of Barbara Ansted, who is running for a Sandusky County Common Pleas Court judge seat. Her daughter, Allison Ansted, 23, of Lindsey, and Allison's fiance, Matt Clearman, 25, of Maumee, were also killed in the crash. Danielle Gerwin, 31, of Gibsonburg, and Emily Gerwin, 4, were also killed.

The crash occurred at about 1 p.m. in a grassy field nestled in a residential area in the southern part of the city. It was the only wide-open space in the vicinity, which authorities suspect was why Damschroder tried to land there.

"This is the only field in the area and it makes me wonder if he was trying to steer clear of the homes," Gockstetter said.

A World War II navy pilot, Damschroder never lost his love of flying, continuing to pilot airplanes until his death Sunday afternoon.

"I don't know if he was trying to land it on its belly because he didn't have the wheels down," Haslinger said. "This guy was an experienced pilot."

The plane went down shortly after take off as it circled back around to approach Fremont Progress Airport from the west.

Earlier in the day, visitors flocked to the airport for pancakes and short plane rides during the annual Fly-In Breakfast. It is believed Damschroder offered to take visitors on airplane rides for the cost of fuel.

The crash left the plane in pieces.

"I saw no movement," Haslinger said. "All I can say for the people in that plane is that I'm sorry for the families because there was no chance for survival."

Walker said flames consumed the plane wreckage moments after the crash. Nearby residents scurried, trying to make sense of the catastrophe in their backyards.

"There were two guys screaming and cussing -- call 911, they yelled," Walker said. "I looked over there and there was just black smoke and flames."

That shock remained etched in their faces several hours later. Neighbors stood solemnly behind yellow police tape, taking in a glimpse of the disaster that rocked their usually quiet neighborhood.

The tragedy reached far beyond Fremont.

Barbara Ansted was distraught and declined comment, family friend Pamela Kindle said.

"When you get up and have breakfast with your family and, before the day's even over, you have this devastation..." Kindle said. "She's devastated as you can imagine."

Dwight Wise remembers running against Damschroder in the 1980s for the state representative seat.

"He had the support of the people in this district," Wise said. "He was a person people could really relate to."

Now the community is left to grieve for Damschroder and his passengers, he said.

"It's going to be a difficult time for a lot of people in this area," Wise said. "Anytime you have a sudden death like that it's tragic."