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updated: 11/29/2011 11:55 PM

Neighbor describes seeing plane crash, rescuing co-pilot

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  • An official looks up to the trees where parts of the plane were caught by the branches when it crashed Monday night in Riverwoods and killed three people.

      An official looks up to the trees where parts of the plane were caught by the branches when it crashed Monday night in Riverwoods and killed three people.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • A twin-engine plane crashed Monday night between two houses in Riverwoods. No one on the ground was injured but three people on the plane were killed and two others were injured.

      A twin-engine plane crashed Monday night between two houses in Riverwoods. No one on the ground was injured but three people on the plane were killed and two others were injured.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Video: NTSB investigator Ed Malinowski discusses the crash

  • Video: Riverwoods plane crash

  • Video: John McGuire describes Riverwoods crash

 
 

As federal investigators are trying to determine why a medical transport airplane crashed in Riverwoods Monday night, killing the pilot and two passengers, a nearby neighbor Tuesday described the scene as like "a movie set with bodies."

Chief among the National Traffic Safety Board's concerns are the weather, the pilot's background and the history of the aircraft.

Questions also have been raised about whether the Piper PA-31 had enough fuel to safely complete its journey.

Two men -- the co-pilot and a medic on board -- survived the crash, which happened about 10:50 p.m. in a wooded area near Portwine Road and Orange Brace roads.

Killed in the crash were pilot William Didier, 58, of Cedar Grove, Wis., and passengers John W. Bialek, 80, and Ilomae L. Bialek, 75, both of Streamwood.

The Bialeks were married. The plane was heading to Wheeling's Chicago Executive Airport from West Palm Beach, Fla., where the couple also has a home. John Bialek was aboard as a patient, authorities said.

Kim Norwesh, who lives across the street from the crash site, heard the plane flying over her family home and witnessed the impact when she looked out the window, according to her husband, Charlie.

"I grabbed my coat and ran outside. She followed with the telephone and was dialing 911," Charlie Norwesh said Tuesday evening. "I approached the fire and that's when I realized it was an airplane. There were a lot of motionless bodies."

Charlie Norwesh noticed the co-pilot was moving and screaming about his injured leg, but a fire was flaring close to the man.

"The plane was on fire right next to the co-pilot and I knew I had to get him out first," he said. "There was a hole in the plane -- a piece of the plane missing -- that I could reach in and unbuckle his belt and pull him through."

By the time Norwesh pulled the man out, the medic who survived the crash had come up behind him with a badly shattered arm, but was able to walk and speak.

"It didn't look real," Norwesh said. "If you could imagine a movie set with bodies and blood and shrapnel and metal. It didn't look real."

NTSB air safety investigator Ed Malinowski spent Tuesday at the crash site, taking photos and searching for clues that would explain why the twin-engine plane crashed about five miles north of the airport.

The plane was headed southeast when it hit a copse of tall trees between two homes and then the ground, Malinowski said.

The pilot reported being low on fuel before the crash, Malinowski said. There was no explosion when the plane crashed, only a small fire that was kept in check by Norwesh, whose wife had grabbed a fire extinguisher from their home. Firefighters quickly extinguished the flames when they arrived.

The fire would have been worse if there was fuel on the ground, Lincolnshire-Riverwoods Fire Protection District Chief Fred Kruger said.

The crash site was about 250 feet long, Malinowski said, and wreckage was visibly strewed throughout the area. Much of the fuselage seemed to be intact.

The medic and co-pilot remained at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville with nonlife-threatening injuries, hospital officials confirmed Tuesday.

Although some officials called one of the survivors a co-pilot, Didier was listed as the lone crew member, Malinowski said. That survivor was a pilot-rated passenger, however.

The plane is owned by Trans North Aviation Ltd., an air transportation company that operates bases at Eagle River and Green Bay, Wis., Chicago, and Charleston, S.C.

The plane had stopped in Jesup, Ga., and took on 165 gallons of fuel, Malinowski said. That model Piper carries up to 182 gallons of fuel.

After leaving Jessup, the plane was following instrument flight rules and was in contact with air traffic control towers, said Elizabeth Isham Cory, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman.

The plane did not have a flight data recorder, a device often called a black box, Malinowski said.

Didier's brother, Peter, also is a licensed pilot from Wisconsin, and he speculated his brother's plane might have had a fuel pump problem and questioned the planned 800-mile flight between Georgia and Wheeling.

"I thought, that's a long run for an airplane," Peter Didier told the Daily Herald.

William Didier and Ilomae Bialek were pronounced dead on the scene. John Bialek died on the way to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, officials said.

The path the pilot took appeared "totally normal," said Mark Duell, vice president of FlightAware, a flight tracking company that monitors the FAA's flight plans and flights.

Bob Werderich, owner of the Illinois Aviation Academy based at DuPage Airport in West Chicago, said flying is more difficult this time of year. It's a "transitional season," he said, because temperatures in the atmosphere are moving faster, winds are strong, and visibility can go down quickly.

"You also burn more fuel when fighting elements, and (pilots) sometimes find themselves with less gas than anticipated," Werderich said.

But Chicago Executive Airport Manager Dennis Rouleau strongly doubted weather was a factor.

"It wasn't windy at all," he said.

Charlie Norwesh, who says he has already been called a hero by some for saving the co-pilot's life, doesn't know if he agrees with that title.

"I think I did what anybody else would do," he said.

He headed into work at the construction company that he owns Tuesday morning, but admitted that the event has taken a toll on him.

"I'm trying to hang together," Norwesh said. "I've got family around me. I tried to make it as normal a day as possible, a little hard to focus, but it's been a tough day."

A typical airplane crash investigation takes six months to a year to complete, Malinowski said. A preliminary report could be ready in a week, he said.

• Daily Herald staff writer Jamie Sotonoff contributed to this report.

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