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updated: 1/26/2010 8:18 AM

Witness recalls Sugar Grove plane crash

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  • An investigator walks pieces of wreckage left after a small plane crashed Saturday just outside the home of Cathy and Bryan Doyle near Sugar Grove. The Doyles returned home Monday for the first time since the crash, which killed a pilot and his passenger.

      An investigator walks pieces of wreckage left after a small plane crashed Saturday just outside the home of Cathy and Bryan Doyle near Sugar Grove. The Doyles returned home Monday for the first time since the crash, which killed a pilot and his passenger.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer

 

Cathy Doyle had just put dinner in the oven and was turning her attention to laundry Saturday when she heard a "big boom" and felt the house shake.

That's when she looked out the window to see flames shooting from the direction of her attached garage.

"It was a big ball of fire," Doyle recalled. "I said, 'I've got to get everyone out of here.' I thought the house was on fire."

Doyle grabbed her two sons from separate bedrooms and her mother, who was watching television, and ran outside to find a twin-engine airplane had crashed in front of her garage, instantly killing the pilot and his passenger.

The impact sent chunks of airplane through some of Doyle's windows and charred the ground and trees around her property at Route 47 and Old Oaks Road, just outside Sugar Grove.

"We're just so thankful the Lord spared our lives," she said, returning home for the first time Monday. "We feel very fortunate."

Authorities identified the pilot as Gary Bradford Jr., 37, of Hollywood, Fla., and his passenger as Drago Strahija, 32, of Lake Worth, Fla. Police said the men had spent a night in Aurora on business and were en route to Denver when their Piper Aerostar 601P crashed a little before 7 p.m., only minutes after taking off from the nearby Aurora Municipal Airport.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are looking into the crash but so far have not identified a cause. Bradford was instrument-rated and a licensed pilot, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Doyle's husband, Bryan, said the family had been planning a birthday party for Saturday night but rescheduled it after he was called away to New York on business. He spent about 18 hours driving home after getting word of the accident.

"Our hearts go out to the people who lost their lives," he said. "We just feel so bad."

Bryan Doyle said the family was allowed back into the home Monday, but insurance adjusters had not yet been able to assess the damage.

At least three cars and several windows were destroyed, he said, but it's unclear whether his family's home of the last six years received any significant structural damage.

"There were plane parts in here," he said of the living room. "That plane just disintegrated."

The Doyles praised local police and firefighters for their quick response and efforts to cover broken windows and clean up debris. Among those first on the scene was Sugar Grove Fire Chief Marty Kunkel, who lives a few doors away from the Doyles.

"We were fortunate to have him here," Bryan Doyle said. "They did a good job. The response was great."

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