LAKE PLACID - 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 at about 6 p.m. on Feb. 21 near Big Burn Mountain, roughly a mile from Whiteface Inn Road, 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."
This plane crashed Feb. 21 near Big Burn Mountain in the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness, as seen a few days later from a plane piloted by Jeffrey Murray.
(Photo — Shaun Ondak)
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, he said, 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. "But without the lights again, there was nowhere really to go."
So Dombroski said he set up the plane to do a missed approach and 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.
"It had just gotten dark, and I saw the treetops basically, so we pulled up hard," he said.
As he was doing that 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. The aircraft had done a 180-degree turn.
"We landed, and we were all sitting in our seats," Oster said. "We looked at each other. We said are you OK? You OK?"
Somehow the men had survived. The plane showed signs of damage, but the cockpit and passenger area were fairly intact.
"We were all expecting to have a big impact hitting the earth, and basically you can see from the plane we never hit the earth," Oster said. "The plane is pretty much suspended by the soft pine trees that it landed into."
Dombroski, who built the plane, said the wings staying on the plane played a big role in the aircraft staying together.
"You saw all the impact on the leading edge of the wings," he said. "Each of those absorbed a tremendous amount of energy and helped really absorb the impact for us."
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.
"That's a bit of a mystery, why, and one I'm still trying to figure out," Dombroski said.
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.
Although it was remarkable the men survived the crash, that didn't mark the end of their ordeal. 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."
The men were told a search party would rescue them. Using a GPS, the men provided the dispatcher with their coordinates in a formula that uses degrees, minutes and decimals of minutes.
That formula is slightly different from the formula local emergency responders normally use, DEC spokesman Dave Winchell said. Forest rangers and other emergency personal usually use a degrees and decimals of degrees formula, so when the coordinates were relayed by the dispatcher to forest rangers and state police, there was a mix-up.
When the searchers plotted the coordinates on a map in the wrong formula, the crash appeared to be on Nye Mountain in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, miles from the actual crash site.
Hoping to get to the men quickly, DEC incident commander Joe LaPierre sent forest rangers Scott VanLaer and Jim Giglinto on what would be 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 at about 7:30 p.m.
As the men were waiting for the rescuers, they kept warm using items from the plane. They took a tarp and made a makeshift tent. They had intended to go to Whiteface Mountain Ski area while visiting this area, so Dombroski had some skiing gear with him, including some pairs of long underwear, a pair of ski pants and a pair of ski boots. The other men's gear had been sent up separately in a friend's car.
"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 of the media outlets reported that the search and plane crash were happening on Nye Mountain.
After the news hit the Internet, Dombroski said he was contacted by one of his employees at the financial software company he owns. The person had read the AP's news brief on the Wall Street Journal's website. The three men then realized the rescuers were looking for them 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. "We went back and forth with several different people."
"There was a little excitement at that time," Dombroski said. "But I have to say, myself and the other two guys, we're not the panic types, and I think that helped us."
One of the people the plane crash survivors contacted was Matt Colby, a friend of one of their local friends. The Lake Placid fire driver was out of town but was able to help the survivors understand their location.
"We talked through exactly what we knew with him and he was able to determine pretty quickly where he thought we were as well," Dombroski said.
Through these discussions, the location problem began to resolve itself. It was about 11 p.m. when forest rangers realized the plane crash wasn't on Nye Mountain.
One of the key clues to the men determining their true location was seeing Whiteface Inn Road on their GPS, Winchell said. The street is only about a mile away from the crash site. Once the forest rangers figured out the location of the three men, they redirected the search.
Forest rangers Kevin Burns, Chris Kostoss, Pete Evans and Dave Russell were sent to the new site and began searching from Whiteface Inn Road. They started into the woods on snowmobiles, following some cross-country ski trails that are off the Jackrabbit Trail. They then switched to snowshoes.
When the forest rangers got within about a half-mile of the men, 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."
As the forest rangers continued bushwhacking deeper into the woods, the plane crash survivors' voices got louder and louder. 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 was a difficult night, but Dombroski said his group was extremely thankful to the rescuers for making two trips into the woods and their friends and Colby for their efforts. He was especially grateful for the soft landing.
"It's nothing short of a miracle and divine intervention," Dombroski said.