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2 killed as plane crashes near county airport

2 passengers seriously hurt in Dravosburg

Tuesday, March 16, 1999

By Johnna A. Pro, Rona Kobell and Bill Heltzel, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

A weekend jaunt to a Georgia car race ended in tragedy yesterday when the pilot of a private plane crashed in Dravosburg, killing himself and a passenger and leaving two other passengers seriously injured.

  Residents and firefighters check out the wreckage of a twin-engine plane that crashed yesterday in Dravosburg. More photos. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

The twin-engine Beechcraft Duchess, or BE 76, piloted by Allen R. Novosel, 43, of Jefferson Hills, went down 1 1/2 miles from the Allegheny County Airport at 12:35 p.m.

"He was cleared for landing. He was on his final approach. He was cleared to land on Runway 31," said Kenneth P. Furstoss, president and general manager of Phoenix Aviation, the company that leased the plane to Novosel on Friday.

In addition to Novosel, front-seat passenger William J. Murphy Jr., 39, of Baldwin Borough, died at the scene.

Joel Miller, 44, of Whitehall and Harry Hanley, 49, of Carrick, were passengers in the rear of the four-seat plane and were listed in critical condition with multiple injuries at UPMC Presbyterian last night.

Furstoss said the plane had dual controls but Novosel was the only pilot on board.

Novosel was head of Quatro Group Development Corp., a company that builds expensive homes on large lots in the Jefferson Hills area.


Jefferson Mayor Mary Larcinese said Novosel was active in the community as a businessman and volunteer.

"It's a very sad time for the borough. This is a gentleman who gave his life in a situation that I do believe could have been much worse. I commend him. And my heart goes out to his family," Larcinese said.

Novosel was known throughout Jefferson Hills and Pleasant Hills for his work as a developer. He frequently worked for the borough of Pleasant Hills, and one of his most recent projects was installing lights in the ball fields.

Bob Ruberto, owner of Pleasant Hills Cement Contracting and a neighbor of Novosel's, said they met about two years ago.

"He wasn't an absentee owner. He ran all the jobs. Basically, he was there all the time," Ruberto said.

Relatives of Murphy's reached last night said they did not want to say anything.

Others who knew all four of the men involved in the plane crash said they were friends who frequently traveled together to NASCAR races.

Hanley is owner of Park Motor Co., a Carrick automotive repair business.

Miller, manager of Salvatore's Of Little Giant World of Catering in Baldwin Borough, would have been familiar with the equipment rescue workers used to save his life.

For 18 years, he was a firefighter and paramedic at the all-volunteer Whitehall Fire Co., serving as president for three years.

At a meeting last night, firefighters said a prayer for Miller and the other men involved in the plane crash, some of whom they also knew.

Phil Lahr, the fire company's current president, said Miller had talked about his trips to the races with friends Murphy, Novosel and Hanley.

"The four of them [going to NASCAR races together] was kind of a standard thing. They would do this five or six times a year, I think. They would travel somewhere and watch the races. It was just something they really enjoyed," Lahr said.

Miller had become less active in the fire company in recent years because of his catering business, a job he acquired after leaving the area for a few years to manage a steak house in Atlanta.

Fire Chief Hobert Moore and Captain Donald Madeja stayed at the hospital with Miller. They reported their friend suffered a broken leg, several broken ribs and a punctured lung.

The nature of Hanley's injuries could not be determined last night.

Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were at the crash site yesterday and were expected to return today.

Authorities at the scene said that it would be up to investigators for those agencies to determine the cause of the crash. Some witnesses reported hearing the engine coughing and sputtering before the plane went down.

"We have no idea what happened," said Kent George, Allegheny County's aviation director.

George said that he was not aware of any distress calls made by the pilot.

The plane was being guarded last night by the Civil Air Patrol.

The four men had traveled to Georgia to see a NASCAR race, the Cracker Barrel 500, which was held on Sunday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga.

The group had been scheduled to return to Allegheny County Airport on Sunday but changed its plans because of bad weather, Furstoss said.

Instead, Novosel took off at 7:30 a.m. yesterday from Clayton County Airport in Hampton.

He was within minutes of arriving home when the plane went down in the middle of a densely populated housing development.

The plane crashed at the Dravosburg Housing Association, a privately owned apartment complex in the borough of 2,500.

The wreckage sat in the middle of Scott Drive, within 15 yards of units in the complex of two-story townhouses.

No one on the ground was injured, but police Chief Ken Holland said one wheel broke free of the plane and smashed into building number 24 in the complex, landing in a kitchen.

Holland said he had just finished having lunch at his home when he was called to the scene.

"We've had people say it was spitting and sputtering," Holland said. "He nose-dived straight down."

The plane sheared a tree and passed under utility wires before flipping over and slamming into the pavement.

A piece of the tail was draped on branches of a large oak tree. Most of the wreckage was in the middle of the street.

Ken Haberjak, a mail carrier, was making his early-afternoon rounds when he heard the plane sputtering.

Twice, it appeared to lose power, only to surge up as though its engines had been restarted, Haberjak said.

The plane sputtered a third time, began to descend and quickly disappeared from Haberjak's sight. He said he knew instantly that it had crashed.

Haberjak hurried to get help, never finishing his daily deliveries.

Barry Keene also saw the crash. He had just parked his car. "Right away, I knew something was going to happen," he said. "You can sense how high the planes are and this one caught my ear right away."

He said the plane was sputtering, "like the guy was revving the engine and having a hard time getting it going."

The plane was flying low over homes, from the direction of Allegheny County Airport, headed at the tall oak trees on the grounds.

Five seconds before the crash, the engines died and the plane glided into one of the oaks, striking it about 30 feet above the ground.

The plane spun around 180 degrees and dropped like a rock, pulling down a thick utility cable with it.

Christine Kovack, 26, and Erin King, 22, tried to rescue one of the passengers, but they were driven back when the plane caught fire.

Kovack was looking out her kitchen window and saw the utility lines bouncing. "I thought a power line had come down," she said. "I saw the plane and ran over."

She saw only three people inside the wreckage, and only one, a man in a back seat, was moving. "He kept reaching forward. It looked like he was stuck. He wasn't saying anything."

Fuel was leaking out of the plane.

King said she heard a big thump and thought one of the oak trees was falling down.

"I know CPR and thought I could help," she said. But when she got to the plane and opened the door to try to free the passenger, she heard a whooshing sound. The left wing tip had caught fire.

"We heard a real loud boom. We ran to the window and saw wires falling down, falling everywhere," said Eilene Hanrahan, bookkeeper for the privately owned housing association. "Then one of our maintenance men who was looking out another window yelled 'It's an airplane.' So we ran out to see what happened."

Hanrahan and other association workers ran back into their building and began calling police, firefighters and other emergency workers.

Several residents commented on how quickly Dravosburg Volunteer Fire Department No. 1 responded.

Fire Chief Ed Battles said a few volunteers were at the fire house when people started calling. According to one estimate, they arrived in two minutes.

They used dry chemical extinguishers and foam and quickly put the fire out. The ambulance company was right behind them and went to work on the pilot and passengers.

Rescue workers shrouded the plane with a blue tarp to conceal the bodies from the crowd. At about 3 p.m., the coroner's office removed them.

Some residents lost their telephone and cable televison services and crews last night were working to restore those utilities. There was no power outage, though, Holland said.

Several people commented on how lucky they were that the plane didn't crash into the homes.

And Holland said that he was thankful that school children living in the neighborhood had to make up a snow day yesterday. Otherwise, they would have been off school and could have been playing outside when the plane came down.

"The good news is that no one else was injured outside the plane," Allegheny County Commissioner Mike Dawida said. He praised firefighters and paramedics for responding quickly. "They may have saved the lives of the two people who survived," he said.

The 20-year-old plane was owned by John C. Bokenkamp of Roundtable Drive, Peters, according to Landings, an Internet database of flying information. It had a standard airworthiness certificate and was approved for normal operations.

The aircraft is inspected after every 100 hours of flight time, Phoenix Aviation's Furstoss said.

Bokenkamp runs a flying-related business called J.B. Express from his home. He rents or loans planes to companies such as Phoenix Aviation.

Phoenix is one of three companies at the county airport that rent planes, offer flying lessons and hire out for charters.

Yesterday's crash occurred exactly one year after a student pilot was killed in West Mifflin while practicing take-offs and landings.

Anthony Benvin III died on March 15, 1998, when his single-engine plane plowed into a hilltop field surrounded by homes. Benvin, 18, was flying solo.

A small twin-engine jet trying to land in heavy fog at the county airport in January 1998 overshot the main runway and crashed into a nearby trailer park. The co-pilot was critically injured but no one on the ground was hurt. The plane's pilot later blamed the crash on the rain-slicked runway.

Arrangements for Novosel were not complete last night.

Arrangements for Murphy will be handled by the Jefferson Memorial Funeral Chapel, Pleasant Hills.

Staff writers Milan Simonich and Cindi Lash contributed to this report.

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