FLORIDA — Three people traveling to a Vermont ski area could have lost their lives Friday when the small plane they were in fell out of the sky and crashed into woodlands in this Berkshire County town.
Somehow, despite the plane being ripped into pieces, they didn't.
"We're very lucky. They're very lucky," Florida Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michael Gleason said Saturday morning at the scene. "When you see this plane, you're going to say the same thing. How are they alive? It's amazing."
Pilot Kurt Bohlsen, a 22-year-old woman and a 15-year-old girl were traveling from Long Island, N.Y., to go skiing near Rutland, Vt., on Friday. Just before 7 p.m., Bohlsen activated the plane's distress signal after the plane lost power at about 6,400 feet, according to Gleason.
Bohlsen had been traveling north and tried to turn around to get to Harriman-and-West Airport in North Adams but never made it, Gleason said.
When the Fire Department received word about the distress signal, it was given a potential 3-mile radius, in a heavily wooded area, where the single-engine plane and its passengers might have gone down.
"With the weather, my thought was, 'We're going on recovery. We never expected live people," Gleason said. "It was cold, it was 7 degrees, the middle of the woods. We didn't know exactly where we were going."
Shortly after rescuers on snowmobiles were sent to locate the site, the Fire Department received another call. A passenger from the plane had dialed 911. Authorities didn't indicate whose phone the call came from.
The Fire Department tracked the phone to about 1,500 feet off Church Road.
"Once we got that, we just walked into the woods and into the wreckage," Gleason said.
It took about an hour to find the group.
On Saturday, the Piper plane, ripped into pieces, remained scattered among damaged trees.
The nose, which was severed from one wing and its body, was facing the exposed cockpit. A book bag from the Choate Rosemary Hall preparatory school in Wallingford, Conn., was tucked inside the fuselage.
Uneaten apples, a woman's shoe, ski goggles and a Tupperware container full of grains also remained among the debris. The smell of fuel lingered.
"This thing came down in pieces," Florida Fire Capt. Michael Worth said Saturday.
"We thought we were going to be dragging bodies out of here," Gleason said.
Bohlsen and his two passengers — one of them is Bohlsen's daughter, Gleason said — suffered minor injuries. The teen was the only one who could not walk out of the woods unassisted, firefighters said.
"She didn't have any shoes on, she was frozen, so we had to wrap her up," Gleason said. "They weren't dressed" for the weather.
While the group waited for rescuers, the teen was lying in pain on a fuel cell that had detached from the plane, Worth said.
Worth, who ran operations at the scene Friday, said that rescuers first dragged the teen along the snowy terrain, in the dark, on a tarp. When possible, they moved the girl to a rescue sled and sang Christmas carols as they pulled her the rest of the way.
All three passengers were alert and talking when they were found, Worth said.
Gleason and Worth each has served about three decades with the department. Never before had they responded to a plane crash in town.
They described the evening as "organized chaos." Support from ambulance first responders, state police troopers, Department of Conservation & Recreation rangers and civilians from the Florida Mountaineers Snowmobile Club assisted in the rescue.
On Saturday, some residents of the small town — it has a population of less than 800 — visited the area of the crash. Some congratulated the firefighters on their efforts. All of them expressed amazement that everyone survived.
Former Florida Selectman Timothy Bartlett rolled down the window in his truck as he passed firefighters on Church Road on Saturday.
"There must have been someone sitting on his shoulder," he said of Bohlsen and his luck.
Voicemails left for Bohlsen at a personal phone number and at the business line of the Long Island restaurant group he runs were not immediately returned Saturday.
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating why the plane lost power and eventually will take the wreckage to New Jersey for analysis, Gleason said.
"This one makes you feel good," Gleason said of the rescue effort. "It makes you remember why you got into this."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.