A private plane struck the Whitehall water tower near the intersection of Warner St. and Sophia St. at 11:42 a.m. Monday, Sept. 9, killing the pilot.
By later Monday the name of the deceased pilot was released. He was James Joseph Laird, age 79 of Twin Lake.
Family members were at the crash site while remains of the plane were removed.
A son, Brian Laird, said his dad had flown for many years, and he kept his airplane at the Fremont airport. “We’re in the dark about what happened,” he said.
The crash occurred across the road from the main Whitehall District Schools campus which includes the middle school, the football stadium and community center with pre-school. Also next to the water tower are the school baseball and softball fields.
The plane burst into flames upon impact, according to witnesses.
The plane wreckage was mostly contained within the boundary fence surrounding the water tower. The wheels were found on Sophia Street and smaller parts were scattered in nearby yards and grassy areas.
A small dent and scorch mark can be seen on the water tower where it was struck.
Whitehall schools immediately alerted parents about the incident and that their children were safe. However, it is believed some children on the football field and preschool playground witnessed the crash.
Whitehall Police Chief Roger Squiers said all public safety departments in the area responded to the scene, and a White Lake Fire Authority member was first on the scene.
Squiers said the flames were quickly extinguished.
White Lake Fire Authority Chief Gregory Holman said WLFA, Montague Fire and Blue Lake Twp were dispatched to the scene at 11:42 a.m. “Montague and Blue Lake are on automatic aid for a scenario like that,” Holman explained.
The chief said the WLFA initiated the fire attack and Montague was quickly on the scene to supply WLFA’s mini-pumper.
Dalton Township and Norton Shores fire departments reached out to provide command assistance.
Because the fire was extinguished quickly, Holman said Blue Lake was moved to the WLFA Station One to provide coverage while WLFA was on the airplane crash scene. Blue Lake was released at 3 p.m., and had responded to calls during that time.
Holman said Norton Shores was helpful because it deals with air traffic control at the Muskegon County Airport and has resources.
Norton Shores and Central Dispatch helped contact outside agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration for an investigation, and the Medical Examiner to officially declare the pilot deceased.
The WLFA chief said that once the fire was extinguished their efforts turned to blocking out outside traffic and preserving the scene by marking location of debris.
Firefighters also helped remove the body from the wreckage for the Medical Examiner.
Law emforcement at the scene were the Whitehall and Montague city police, Muskegon County Sheriff’s Department and the Michigan State Police.
Emergency Medical Services were provided by Pro-Med and White Lake Ambulance Authority.
The Muskegon County Emergency Services also provided support.
The local McDonalds restaurant sent over cheeseburgers and French Fries for first responders who were at the crash scene.
“It was a unified incident command,” the fire chief said. “It was a very great joint effort from law enforcement, EMS, fire and even Whitehall DPW becasue it involved the water tower. It was an unfortunate event, but very successful because it demonstrated the cooperation between all our agencies.”
Holman said Central Dispatch played a key role by sending out resources while also handling many calls reporting the crash.
“In the initial assessment there was one male passenger in the plane.,” reported Squiers in mid-afternoon.
He said the single engine plane originated from the Fremont Airport and the pilot lived east of Whitehall.
The plane was headed from the northeast in a southwesterly direction, the chief explained.
He said witnesses indicated the plane showed a level flight with no veering and no signs of engine problems.
“We don’t know where the pilot was going or what his intentions were,” Squiers added.
Jeremy Watts, one of the eyewitnesses to the crash, works at a home across Sophia Street from the 500,000 gallon, 180 foot tall water tower.
“I was standing in the yard at 820 Sophia Street and was walking back (to the house) when I looked overhead and saw the plane.”
Watts said the plane engine was loud because it was flying so low. “It hit the water tower straight on. I immediately called 911. It (plane) went straight down and there was black smoke where it hit. I ran up to the fence but didn’t see much.
“It’s the craziest thing I have seen in my life. There was so much black smoke and fire.”
Immediately after the crash smoke could be seen from the crash site for several blocks to the west.
City of Whitehall Department of Public Works Director Brian Armstrong and City Manager Scott Huebler were at the scene.
Huebler said Armstrong was working on arranging for engineers to check the integrity of the water tower.
“In the meantime we are taking it out of service,” added Huebler who said DPW personnel will be draining the water tower until it is inspected.
“We have a second water tower so we don’t need it for normal operations,” Huebler said. “We won’t have to restrict water usage.”
The city manager said they have contacted the schools to tell officials that Warner Street, from Alice Street to Slocum Street will be off limits for buses for at least a day.