WASHINGTON – The pilot of a private jet that hit in rugged Virginia terrain, which killed all four occupants, was seen slumped in the craft by fighter pilots who rushed to intercept the plane as it flew over Washington, D.C., an official said.
The Cessna, chased by military jets before it crashed Sunday, took off from Elizabethton, Tennessee, at 1:13 p.m. ET before air traffic controllers radioed at 1:28 p.m. to stop climbing at 33,000 feet, a senior administration official said.
The plane, which was heading northeast toward Long Island, New York, turned around near New York City and headed back south when fighter jets from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, were sent to investigate and saw the pilot slump forward, the official said.
- Advertisement -
The plane ran out of fuel and crashed near Montebello, Virginia at 3:32 p.m.
On Monday, John Rumpel, whose company is the plane’s registered owner, identified three of the occupants: Adina Azarian, 49; her daughter Aria, 2; and pilot Jeff Hefner.
Rumpel said he wasn’t entirely clear on the name of the fourth person, who he says worked as a nanny looking after the 2-year-old. He described Azarian as a former employee whom he and his wife, Barbara, adopted as a daughter when she was 40 years old.
“You can’t imagine the pain,” he said.
The plane’s owner, whose business in Melbourne, Florida is listed as a car sales company, said they lost a daughter years ago when she was 19.
- Advertisement -
Barbara Rumpel said, “We are devastated by this terrible tragedy.”
In Virginia, the crash scene is in a “densely wooded, remote, mountainous area of Augusta County, near the Nelson County line,” more than a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway, state police spokesman Corinne Geller said.
First responders were unable to reach the crime scene on foot until around 8 p.m. Sunday, Geller added.
- Advertisement -
It could take days for National Transportation Safety Board investigators to corral the highly fragmented debris field, the agency said.
“Everything is on the table until we slowly and methodically remove various components and elements that will be relevant to this safety investigation.” NTSB investigator Adam Gerhardt said.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, known as NORAD, said F-16 fighter jets intercepted the plane after it was seen flying off course over the US capital. They repeatedly tried to make contact with the pilot using flares until just before the plane crashed near George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.
NORAD said a sonic boom “may have been heard by area residents.” The noise was reported to local law enforcement agencies and on social media throughout the Washington-North Virginia-Maryland area around 3 p.m.
Pilots from the Capital Guardians, a unit of the DC National Guard’s 113th Wing, found the pilot was incapacitated, a senior government official said.
It was still not clear what might have disabled the pilot.
“To follow the whole 180-degree turn around New York and then directly over Washington DC sounds very strange to me,” said NBC News aviation analyst Jeff Guzzetti.
“It is suggestive of some mechanical failure with the pressurization of the aircraft, which would incapacitate the occupants due to a lack of oxygen,” Guzzetti said.
Jay Blackman reported from Washington, Chantal Da Silva from London and David K. Li from New York.
Tom Costello, The Associated Press, Dennis Romero, and Valeriya Antonshchuk contributed.