“I just moved the panel that gives us enough room to get out,” Merkle, 66, calmly told the 911 dispatcher. “I think it’s safer outside.”
His single-engine plane became entangled in power lines in Montgomery County about 5:30 p.m. Sunday, and he worried that the aircraft would become dislodged from the tower. The plane already was shifting with the wind, he said, as he pleaded for help. He and his passenger, Janet Williams, were growing cold. His nose was bleeding. She potentially had a rib fracture. Both had head injuries.
“I’m just concerned about our situation and the possibility that we could slip out of this tower,” Merkle told dispatcher Laurel Manion, continuing to describe their location and injuries. “That would not be a survivable distance.”
Recordings of the 911 calls Merkle and Williams made shortly after they crashed Sunday offer new details of the 10-hour ordeal and what might have factored into the plane’s crash into Pepco transmission lines. The crash occurred about a mile from their destination at the Montgomery County Airpark in the Gaithersburg area.
Merkle, reached by phone Tuesday, said it was “absolutely a miracle” that he and Williams, 65, were alive. “How many people sit 150 feet off the ground and worry about whether or not they’re even going to be able to survive?” he said. (Maryland State Police initially reported ages that differed from what Merkle and Williams indicated in the 911 audio.)
Merkle was discharged from a hospital Monday. Williams was expected to be discharged Tuesday, Merkle said.
The cause of the crash hasn’t been determined. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the probe, said that the investigation is ongoing and that the aircraft would be moved to a facility Tuesday for analysis. An update on the crash isn’t expected for weeks, agency spokeswoman Sarah Sulick said Tuesday.
Weather in the Washington region at the time of the crash was misty and rainy, but it wasn’t clear whether those conditions factored into the crash.
Merkle said Tuesday that he is waiting to be interviewed by the NTSB and declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation. The 911 recordings, however, offer clues to what might have gone wrong.
“What exactly happened before the crash? Was it, like, a visibility issue?” Manion asked the pilot as she tried to keep them calm.
“Yes, totally a visibility …” he said. “We were looking for the airport. I descended to the minimum altitude and then apparently, I got down a little lower than I should have.”
The crash sent rescuers into a complex overnight effort to get the pair and the aircraft safely to the ground. The crash caused widespread power outages, prompted the county’s school district to cancel classes, and revived concerns about safety surrounding a regional airport where at least 30 crashes have occurred nearby in the past four decades.
Emergency personnel responding to 911 calls — including Merkle’s from the pilot’s seat — encountered a challenging scene in the misty evening darkness. The plane was lodged among high-voltage lines after making contact with two power-line towers. The wind was picking up, and the plane was so high that no standard ladder would reach.
In the aircraft, the pair was growing anxious.
“Please hurry,” Williams pleaded less than an hour after the crash. “I’m really getting worried. The plane is definitely moving from the wind. So whatever it is they are going to do, they need to start doing it.”
Merkle worried how long it would take rescuers to arrive: “It looks like it’s going to be quite a while before they get up here.”
At the 911 dispatch center, Manion, reassured them that rescuers were working on a plan. She said she would stay on the line until emergency personnel reached them. When the pair talked about grabbing onto the tower, she warned them about live power lines.
The big concern, she said, was that “you’re going to get electrocuted.” She asked them to “remain in the plane, remain still,” adding that emergency personnel were “working on a plan.”
In an interview, Manion, 22, said she had taken routine calls after her shift began at 3 p.m. Then came a call from a witness on the ground reporting a plane crash.
“After that, I picked up the phone again and then, sure enough, it was the pilot,” Manion said. She stayed on the line with them for about 1½ hours, until communications were restricted to save their cellphone battery life.
When Merkle and Williams told her they wanted to exit, she reached out to firefighters for guidance and learned the tower was electrified. Manion said she reassured Merkle and Williams the safest place was inside the plane. The pair then noted to Manion that even if they tried to rescue themselves, there was no place to stand on the tower.
Crews had to stabilize the aircraft on the tower before attempting a rescue. Utility crews had to cut power to the lines. Seven hours later, responders used two boom crane trucks to get the pair out, and the plane was lowered to the ground about 3:30 a.m. Monday — 10 hours after the crash.
“They were pretty calm,” Manion said. “I don’t know how calm I would have been if I was in their shoes. And that’s just what I was trying to think about the whole time that I was reassuring them.”
Dan Morse contributed to this report.