Plane crash claims five lives - three on ground


Jet fuel poured down a staircase inside the burning home as off-duty firefighter Ryan Cooper tried to rescue a seriously burned father who was frantically searching for his younger child, the firefighter recalled Wednesday.

A small plane with a NASCAR pilot and the husband of a racing executive aboard had crashed into two homes, spilling fuel and setting both ablaze.

Cooper was kissing his wife goodbye in their nearby driveway Tuesday morning when he saw the plane go down.

He grabbed his fire gear from his car and "ran over to do what I could," he told the NBC's "Today" show Today.

Within minutes, Cooper was carrying a seriously burned 10-year-old boy from the house. He set the child in the yard, then went back in for the father. He said he also tried to get to neighbors in the burning house next door but couldn't find anyone before a Sanford police officer pulled him out for his own safety.

Five people in all died in the crash &

two adults aboard the plane and a woman and two children in the destroyed homes.

Among the victims were 54-year-old Dr. Bruce Kennedy, a Daytona Beach plastic surgeon and husband of International Speedway Corp. President Lesa France Kennedy, and NASCAR Aviation pilot Michael Klemm, 56. The victims on the ground were identified as 24-year-old law student Janise Joseph-Woodard, her 6-month-old son, and their next-door neighbor, 4-year-old Gabriela Dechat.

The little girl's parents, Milagros Dechat, 33, and Peter Dechat, 36, were seriously injured.

Eric Domnitz, who lives down the street, had rushed over with a fire extinguisher to try to help and described a horrific scene.

"It's in my head. The woman was just melting. It looked like her skin was just melting off," he said. "The guy, he was melting. He looked like wax."

The 10-year-old boy, whose name has not been released, was taken to Cincinnati Burn Center with burns over 80 to 90 percent of his body. Another neighbor, Dennis Misuraca, said the child "looked like he had a flannel shirt on, but he didn't have a shirt on &

he was just really that burned."

Cooper said he tried to search for Dechat's younger child but couldn't get up the stairs.

"I walked in as far as I could. The jet fuel that was dumping down from the second story to the first floor stopped me," he said.

Screaming neighbors told him people remained in the second house on fire, but Cooper said he couldn't find anyone after he kicked in the door.

The small plane was traveling from Daytona Beach to Lakeland on Tuesday when the pilot declared there was smoke in the cockpit. It was not clear who was flying the plane; NASCAR said it was Kennedy, but investigators said earlier it was Klemm.

The pilot was directed to land at the Sanford Airport but air traffic control lost radar contact around 8:40 a.m. The plane crashed a few miles away.

The National Transportation Safety Board will focus its investigation of the crash on "man, machine and the environment," NTSB vice chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

"We'll be reviewing the aircraft maintenance records and any other records associated with this airplane," he said. The investigation will also focus on any services the plane may have received before or during the flight, including fueling and maintenance.

At the crash site, rescue crews arrived to a "heavy, dark column of smoke" worsened by the airplane fuel. "The plane's in numerous pieces throughout the five or six homes' backyard," said Matt Minnetto, an investigator with the Sanford Fire Department.

The plane was registered to Competitor Liaison Bureau Inc. of Daytona Beach. Online records from the Department of State Division of Corporations show the company is registered under the name of William C. France, the NASCAR chairman who died last month at age 74 at his Daytona Beach home. Lesa France Kennedy, whose husband died in the plane crash, is France's daughter.

"Our deepest sympathies and prayers are with all of those who were involved in this tragic accident and their families," NASCAR said in a statement.

Gov. Charlie Crist said Bruce Kennedy was a great friend. "When I went to the Homestead race, he was kind enough to take me around to meet the drivers. He was gracious beyond words," Crist told The Daytona Beach News-Journal.

At Florida AM College, professors consoled Joseph-Woodard's classmates Tuesday night.

"Janise balanced law school, a family and a healthy marriage. And she did it well," classmate Nikeisha Ford said.

Associated Press writers Sarah Larimer, Lisa Orkin Emmanuel, Adrian Sainz, Rasha Madkour and Kelli Kennedy in Miami and Ron Word in Daytona Beach contributed to this report.

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