DELAND, Fla. (CBS Tampa/AP) — A small experimental plane sputtered and crashed in flames into a supermarket at a Florida shopping center Monday evening, injuring five people and sending frightened shoppers running from the complex, authorities said.
Several people in the Northgate Shopping Center in DeLand dialed 911 around 7:20 p.m. to report the aircraft had plunged into the complex, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said. Callers said the plane showed signs of trouble moments before it hit the roof of the supermarket of the Florida-based Publix chain.
“A twin-engine experiment aircraft has crashed into the roof of the Publix supermarket,” DeLand Police Sgt. Chris Estes told The Associated Press by telephone. “Publix is the only structure to suffer any damage.” But he said all the businesses in the complex were closed to make way for emergency crews.
He said the plane had taken off from a nearby municipal airport in DeLand, a Florida city about 20 miles west of Daytona Beach.
The police spokesman added that three people had suffered severe burns and two others had moderate burns but he didn’t specify who on the ground or on the aircraft were injured.
However, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office said a pilot and a passenger from the plane were airlifted to Orlando Regional Medical Center. Spokesman Gerardo Morales later confirmed to AP that two people had been airlifted there, but he declined to identify them or discuss their injuries.
Marleny Arevalo, a manager at a nearby Taco Bell fast food restaurant, said she didn’t hear or see the crash but customers entering the outlet reacted with shocked looks moments afterward.
“They said, “Something’s burning!” she told The Associated Press by telephone.
Arevalo said she quickly ran with another employee to the shopping center and saw flames in the air shooting from near the back of the Publix supermarket.
“There was a lot of smoke. When I first saw it, there was fire in the air and then it was just a lot of black smoke,” she said, adding she tried to go behind the supermarket where fire officials blocked the area. She said they also blocked surrounding roads for hours afterward.
Roth Peeler, who lives about 300 feet behind the store, told the Orlando Sentinel he saw the plane go down.
“A small … yellow plane spiraled right down and through the roof and just exploded,” Peeler said. “Not a piece of the plane came out. It’s all in the store.”
“I went around the front and saw people running out of the store and trying to get into their cars and out of the parking lot,” he added.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many people were in the shopping center at the time of the crash or where exactly the plane had struck the supermarket.
Broadcast station WFTV reported on its website that Publix employees who declined identification looked up after the plane crashed through the roof.
The station reported that workers saw the pilot and a passenger climb from the plane with their clothing on fire. The report added that a manager in the supermarket meat department was able to put out the fire in their clothes and rush them outside for help.
The report said both of the plane’s occupants were severely burned and three other adult shoppers in the store were taken to a local hospital where one was treated and released. The report said none of the shoppers had life-threatening injuries, quoting an unnamed hospital official.
Lisa Cordova, one of the injured customers, described the horror of seeing a man severely burned.
“He was just pulling layers and layers of his skin off his leg,” she told the Sentinel. “Someone grabbed me and pushed me out of the store. I was like, ‘I can’t leave him there.’ ”
A dark column of smoke wafted from the supermarket rooftop after the crash. About 20 fire trucks at one point crowded about the complex. Firefighters atop a truck’s extension ladder poured streams of water on the flames.
Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, told The Associated Press in an email that the FAA did not provide air traffic services for the flight and had no information on the plane, its flight or those aboard.
A call by AP to Publix at its Lakeland, Fla., headquarters was not answered Monday evening. Its website says it has 748 store locations in Florida and dozens more in four other Southern states, the largest employee-owned supermarket chain in the U.S.
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