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'There's enough static electricity in there to kill you' | Firefighters who rescued pilot and passenger speak out

Experts warned climbing the tower without grounding it could have killed the rescuers and the two people trapped in the plane.

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md. — The firefighters who pulled two people from a small plane dangling Sunday from a high voltage tower in Montgomery Village spoke publicly for the first time Wednesday, saying their first instinct was to climb up with ropes, harnesses and a basket to bring down the injured pilot and passenger.

But they're convinced it might not have turned out as well if they had followed that instinct. 

Montgomery firefighters had the equipment and the training to climb a high voltage tower. 

"Once it's de-energized we can climb it," said Lt. Logan McGrane, who helped coordinate the response on the ground.

What they couldn't do was climb over 100 feet up a high voltage tower to pull two people out of a crashed plane before they were certain it was safe.

Pilot Patrick Merkle repeatedly told a 911 call taker he was worried the strong winds would jiggle the propeller that was holding the plane to the tower and send it crashing tail first to the ground. 

"That would not be a survivable event," he told the call taker.

But firefighter-paramedic Luke Marlowe who spoke about the crash and rescue for the first time Wednesday said that if he or anyone else had tried to go up prematurely and they had been injured or worse, they wouldn't do any good for the people they were trying to help in the first place. 

"If we went up there and something happened to us, then we can't help them," Marlowe said.

Firefighters say their first idea was to use ropes and harnesses to get up to the plane. But as they analysed the situation, that became the back-up plan, and then the back-up to the back-up plan.

Pepco experts warned that even after they de-energized the power lines, there was a big risk. 

"There's enough static electricity in there to kill you," McGrane said.

Firefighter David Reed added that despite the risks, if fire officials told him to scale the tower, he would have. But ultimately, it was agreed that it wasn't safe for anyone. 

"Could have shocked them," Reed said. "Could have hurt the plane, moved it or shocked the people on the plane." 

Merkle pleaded with firefighters to put a ladder up to him, and insisted in an interview Tuesday that the tower was never electrified. But McGrane said a ladder wasn't an option due to sizing. 

"Reaching up with a ladder, that would have been fine if we had a ladder that was 115 feet," he said. "But we don't. All the ladders in Montgomery County are around 100 feet." 

So Merkle, his passenger and the firefighters waited nearly seven hours to ground the electric lines and bring in a 178-foot cherry picker.

"It was a great moment," Marlowe said of when he got to the patients. 

And doctors say both the pilot and passenger are going to be ok. 

"That's amazing," Marlowe said with a big smile. "Great news all around." 

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