2 dead after plane crashes into autism therapy center, sparks fire

Teachers, students were inside building when plane crashed

By Tim Swift - Local10.com Digital Editor, Roy Ramos - Reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A small private plane crashed into a therapy center for autistic children Saturday afternoon in Fort Lauderdale, killing two people on board and setting the building on fire, authorities said.

Battalion Chief Steven Gollan, a spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue Department, said teachers and children were in the building when the plane crashed. One of the teachers suffered minor injuries as she ushered the children from the building, but she was not hospitalized.

Officials said there were eight staff members and six children inside the building at the time of the crash.

The view from Sky 10 showed foam-covered debris littered across the parking lot. The front facade of the concrete building suffered heavy damage.

The crash happened around 1:30 p.m. in the 1000 block of West Cypress Creek Road. By 2:30 p.m., fire crews had put out the fire, Gollan said.

The crash left a large amount of jet fuel on the ground, complicating the firefighting efforts, Gollan said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the plane was a Cessna 335, which had just taken off from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. The plane was en route to Hilliard, a town in north Florida, the FAA said.

"We just seen a whole bunch of smoke," witness Jada Forrester-Reid said.

"I saw the airplane pass just over me and the engine (went), 'put, put, put,' and after I see black smoke," witness Gerald Houle said.

"I heard the plane engines popping, about three times, 'bang, bang, bang,' and then it went right by me," witness David Devine said.

Regional director Claudia Axelrod described the moments she and her staff members jumped into action as the roof began to collapse and the building went up in flames. Their focus was the children.

"They felt the building shake, and they thought it was a car that probably hit," Axelrod said. "Quickly, the door began to catch on fire, so they grabbed each child. The person in charge started to shout, 'You have this one, you have this one,' to make sure that everyone was accounted for."

Everyone inside the building made it out safely. Firefighters who battled the blaze stopped it from spreading to other business, calling staff members who rushed the half-dozen children to safety the real heroes.

"Our condolences with the families of the two people that passed away today in this tragedy," Axelrod said. "Our prayers are with you."

Investigators said they are working to find out who was aboard the plane.

Officials said the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. NTSB plans to meet with an air frame manufacturer and listen to audio from air traffic control Sunday morning.

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