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Investigation into Montgomery Co. plane crash continues

A small plane crashed into a transmission tower after flying past live power lines in Gaithersburg Sunday, leaving thousands in the dark. Here's what happens next.

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — An hours-long, coordinated rescue effort resulted in two people being safely pulled from a plane caught in a transmission tower about 100 feet in the air Sunday night. The crash left thousands of Montgomery County residents in the dark for hours on Sunday. Montgomery County Public Schools and Montgomery County College canceled classes Monday because of the widespread outages. 

As of 1 a.m., Pepco said power had been restored to residents impacted by the incident. By 3 a.m. Monday, the plane had been removed from the tower. While the pilot and the passenger were safely rescued and taken to area hospitals for treatment, work still needs to be done to address the damaged power lines the plane hit. Crews are working diligently to re-string powerlines as of Monday afternoon. Some roads remained closed around the crash site while the investigation continues. 

Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said rescue efforts and power restoration took several agencies working together.

"Everyone working together in unison is what makes this successful," Goldstein said. 

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said Monday in an afternoon press conference regarding the incident that the plane stopped in the best place possible, as if it had continued barreling forward, it may have clipped wires and wound up being uncontrollable.

Elrich also commended all responders who worked on the incident and thanked Pepco for re-routing affected households and businesses' power much faster than expected.

"It may have seemed like a long time to people, but I know we expected it to be a very long time potentially . . . and that didn't pan out," Elrich said of the 120,000 people who lost power. "We've got some resiliency built into the system here."

It all started around 5:40 p.m. on Sunday. That's when fire crews responded to a call of a crash near Rothbury Drive and Goshen Road. At the scene, the small plane was seen dangling 100 feet in the air in a Pepco tower. The crash site is about four miles from the Montgomery County Airpark. 

Utility crews from Pepco Energy shut off power to the live power lines, plunging thousands of people in the surrounding area into darkness Sunday night. 

Emergency crews rescued the pilot and passenger who were trapped in the plane and used a bucket truck to get them safely back on the ground. The two people have been identified as 65-year-old Patrick Merkle of Washington, D.C. and 66-year-old Jan Williams from Louisiana. Merkle was piloting the aircraft, according to Maryland State Police.

Both Merkle and Williams were taken to an area hospital by ambulance for treatment of serious injuries. Their conditions are not known at this time. As of 2 p.m. Monday, one of the two remains hospitalized, although officials could not confirm whose hospital stay is continuing.

Utility crews worked through the night to remove the plane from the tower. The plane, a single-engine Mooney M20J, was back on the ground by 3:30 a.m. 

Now that the airplane is removed, Pepco said they will begin assessing the damage done to their infrastructure and what repairs need to be made.

Ben Armstrong, a spokesperson with Pepco, told WUSA9 the work to restore power and assist rescue crews was unique. 

"We were able to restore service to all of our customers through redundancies that we have built into our system just before midnight," Armstrong said.

"It was a very unique situation as you can imagine," Armstrong said. "These are high voltage lines. These are lines that move large amounts of electricity across the local energy grid -- what we call the bulk power system."

Armstrong spoke about challenges faced by the workers at the scene. 

"On these high-voltage transmission lines, like the ones in this situation, you need to be concerned that, even though we were able to de-energize those lines, that there could be what's called induced voltage, or what you might call residual power," Armstrong said. "We also want to ensure there's no possibility that that line could become re-energized so that our workers and local emergency responders can do the work that they need to do safely."

As work continues at the crash site, roads in the area remained closed to traffic Monday morning. It's not clear when roads will be reopened.

Power outages did impact Metro services overnight, but Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority officials said service was running on schedule Monday morning. 

While the cause of the crash has not been officially confirmed, Gaithersburg was experiencing foggy conditions around the time of the crash.

Aviation experts told WUSA9 that when flying a plane, the best-case scenario is to have 10 miles of visibility. According to observations from the Montgomery County Airpark, around the time of the crash, visibility was at 1.25 miles. The cloud ceiling -- or where clouds start in the atmosphere -- was at 200 feet. 

In conditions such as those, pilots have to rely solely on their instruments to tell them where they are going. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will investigate to learn exactly what happened.

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