MID-AIR COLLISION: MANATEE COUNTY, FLORIDA

BY LEIGH T. HOLLINS

The afternoon of Thursday, November 16, 2000, was like any other fall afternoon in west-central Florida. The weather was sunny and clear; the temperature was in the low 70s-the kind of weather that most other parts of the country only dream of in mid-November. Certainly, it was not the kind of day on which you would expect a major incident, but that was what was in store for the South Manatee Fire & Rescue District. One of those “once-in-a-career” type of incidents took us all by surprise.

South Manatee Station 310 and 340 companies were “picking up” from a heavily involved motor home fire when the airwaves started crackling with talk of a plane down. Since the motor home fire was within one-half mile or so of the airport, we assumed someone from the other side of the airport saw the large column of smoke from our “job” and assumed that a plane crashed. It soon became apparent that that was not the case.

As we listened to the fire radio a little more intently, we realized that there was a confirmed incident involving a plane somewhere in the county. Additional radio traffic brought some temporary relief when reports to the communications center indicated that the incident was at the Rosedale Golf and Country Club, located in the Braden River Fire District, east of South Manatee’s jurisdiction. While placing my gear back in the command truck, I heard one of our companies, Engine 371, on the air reporting a large column of smoke north of its station. Since Rosedale is north of that station, I again assumed the best-it’s not in our area.


The entrance to Rosedale Golf and Country Club, a typical golf course community in Florida. Several pieces of the Cessna penetrated roofs in the neighborhood: A wheel went through a roof and a component crashed through a roof and living room ceiling, seven feet from an occupant. No one on the ground was injured. (Photos by author.)

Engine 371 went “in service” to investigate, and we were soon flooded with radio reports of “a plane down,” “multiple planes down,” “active fires,” “a fighter jet down,” “a pilot parachuting from a jet,” and miscellaneous other calls relating to the incident. Engine 371 confirmed that there was a large fire in our district. Eyewitness reports to 371’s officer and verified reports to the communications center and relayed over the fire radio spelled out what had happened: A small private plane collided with a military jet over the Rosedale area, and the military jet continued south and crashed in South Manatee’s district.


The Cessna 172 is one of the most popular private aircrafts in the United States. The high-winged four-seater is 26 feet long, 36 feet wide, and nine feet high. Its maximum speed is 140 mph; its range is approximately 670 miles. Typical operating altitude is below 10,000 feet.

The private plane, a four-seat Cessna 172, with a pilot only, had taken off minutes earlier from the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. The Cessna was at 1,600 feet when Tampa Air Traffic Control advised the pilot to climb to 3,500 feet, head west for the coast, and follow the coast north to his destination, which was St. Petersburg. From that point on, the pilot was flying by visual flight rules (VFR). His position was over Rosedale Golf and Country Club at State Road 70 and Interstate 75, 10 miles southeast of Bradenton, Florida.

About the same time, a hundred miles to the north and heading south, two USAF F-16C Fighting Falcon jets from the 69th fighter squadron, out of Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Georgia, were just completing a maneuver called a “G-check.” The G-check maneuver familiarizes pilots with the feeling of G-forces by making high-speed 90° turns to the right and then to the left. The speeds during the G-check approached 500 mph and were at 13,000 feet but descending fast. The two F-16s, identified as “Ninja 1” (lead) and “Ninja 2,” were also flying by VFR and, after completing the G-check, assumed the “fighting wing” formation, placing one jet lower, behind and off to the side of the other. By now, they were approaching the airspace over Rosedale, where the Cessna was at 2,000 feet and slowly climbing.

At 3:48 p.m., Ninja 2 collided with the Cessna, disintegrating most of it. Pieces of the Cessna and the pilot rained down on the fairways and greens of the golf course at Rosedale, as shocked golfers ran for cover. Pieces of the F-16 littered State Road 70 and areas south, as Ninja 2 continued, turning right in an effort to turn north toward McDill Air Force Base in Tampa. As he did, he quickly realized the damage was severe and that the F-16’s engine was shutting down. Ninja 2 was now headed directly for University Park, a residential community of million-dollar homes. Ninja 2 turned back to the left, where there was a wooded area, and the pilot ejected as the jet rolled left, past the 90$deg; point. During his parachute descent, he watched the jet “pancake” into the woods, inverted, as a fireball engulfed the area.

Most of us, having no real crash fire rescue experience but having attended a military aircraft class in the late ’80s taught by McDill Air Force Base personnel, knew our objectives were very clear. If there was no imminent life hazard, secure the area and set up a command structure for what would surely be a multiple-agency unified command. As it turned out, that was easier said than done.

With the confirmation from Engine 371 that the jet and pilot came down in a wooded area of its response zone, an additional engine (331) and a 6 2 6 heavy brush truck (336) were dispatched, and station “move ups” were initiated. Although most of our personnel are EMTs or paramedic certified, the EMS aspect of the incident was not our primary concern because Manatee County EMS is run by the county under the Department of Public Safety and although Manatee County EMS would become part of the unified command, managing the EMS end of the incident was its responsibility. With that, the two main initial functions, fire and EMS, were responding to mitigate the initial concerns: any patients and the fire situation.

On arrival, I established command and set up and identified the location of the command post, conveniently (and coincidentally) located at the end of a newly constructed, unused, dead-end road (Honore Ave.), which is next to a very large shopping center under construction about 2,000 feet south of the crash site. In addition, there was direct access to the site by a dirt road and a newly installed fire hydrant where the road turns to dirt. What luck! This location would be known as Honore Command. It would soon become apparent that the ideal location would be of great benefit when the military helicopters, tractor trailers, and various other military vehicles converged on the scene and set up a “command city” that would operate for 12 days.

Within minutes, I was overwhelmed with people and agencies offering assistance: the shopping center contractor offering heavy equipment, the fire department from the bordering county, the state division of forestry, and a whole slew of curious people. As this was happening, within two minutes of my arrival, I noticed that an entire “parade” of vehicles was driving north on the dirt road toward the crash site. It was then that I realized that the crashed jet was the least of my problems. If this incident was going to be managed, the number one command priority would have to be scene control and security.

Hazardous Materials Threat

During this time period, Engine 331 and Brush 336 were staging near command. Engine 331’s officer was designated as the staging officer. Engine 371 was reporting that the pilot had parachuted safely into the woods and was with EMS. The pilot advised that the jet was an F-16 and that there were no live munitions on-board but there were hazardous materials involved. His advice was to have everyone back out at least 1,000 feet. Engine 371 also advised that the fire was not endangering any structures at the time and that it would be backing out and reporting to command.


The ACES II Advanced Concept Ejection Seat the F-16 pilot deployed just before the jet “pancaked” into the woods. The seat was about 100 yards north of the crash site. The ACES II is considered a “smart seat” because it senses the conditions of the ejection and selects the proper deployment of the drogue and main parachutes to minimize the forces on the occupant. (Photo by Mark Skukowski.)

Shortly after command was established, two of South Manatee’s chief officers arrived. After a briefing, it was decided that the deputy chief would assume command, the training chief would become the safety officer, and I would be the operations chief. As a unified command, under one incident commander, we met with the six agency representatives already on-scene (Manatee and Sarasota County Sheriff’s departments, EMS, Sarasota County Fire Department, Division of Forestry, haz-mat team) and established an initial action plan. That plan included pulling everyone out at least 1,000 feet, securing the area, sending a reconnaissance haz-mat team member into the site, preparing to control the active fire, and bringing the Sheriff’s Office Mobile Command Center to the site.


The view of the F-16 crash site approximately one hour after the crash occurred. This view is looking northeast from the 30-foot-high dirt mound Operations used as an elevated observation post. Note the piles of debris from the nearby construction site land-clearing efforts. The burning piles proved to be a more difficult problem for fire operations than the actual crash debris. (Photo by author.)

My assigned aide and I entered the dirt road toward the site. We encountered most of the parade of vehicles that had entered earlier, as well as a news van set up with its 40-foot “live cam” antenna. After 10 or so minutes, we had everyone cleared out and took up a position on a 30-foot-high dirt mound, which offered a panoramic view of the site from approximately 1,000 feet away. This position was of greater benefit than a ground level post. During this time, the haz-mat team member in full gear approached the crash site and reported that the actual crash “debris field” was approximately 100 feet wide by 200 feet long and that two to three acres of woods were actively burning, including 40 to 50 piles of trees and brush recently cleared from the nearby construction site.

Additional information obtained from the pilot indicated that the haz-mat hazards included the jet fuel, which was probably consumed by now, and a chemical known as “hydrazine” (see sidebar below), which also likely had been consumed during the last seconds of flight by the ejection and the ensuing fire. With this information, it was decided to move in with limited equipment to control the spread of the fire.

Fire Suppression


The F-16 debris field just before sundown on the day of the crash. (5) The tail of the F-16. (Photos by author.)

Two sides of the site were bordered by 10- to 15-foot-wide dirt roads. The weather was favorable-the humidity was high and the wind was calm. Two 6 2 6 brush units and a forestry tractor/plow were brought in to plow the remaining two sides and extinguish the “finger fires.” This effort lasted about one hour. The objective was to contain the fire within a two-acre area and not disturb the crash debris field. This was accomplished without incident.


As brush piles burn in the background, the main pile of debris smolders. The empty six-gallon canister of hydrazine, within this pile, was intact.

The only problems encountered during this initial operations period were the news helicopters that hovered overhead, at times up to six at once. This certainly would have been a problem if one were to crash or if two collided, but the problems at hand were that their noise made communications difficult and they were generally very annoying, making it hard to concentrate and make decisions without interruption. Several requests were made through the Emergency Communication Center to contact the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (about four miles away) and get the air space cleared; this proved to be unsuccessful. Phone calls placed to the TV stations asking them to remove their helicopters from the immediate area also did little to relieve the problem.


The F-16’s jet engine, the largest remaining piece.

During the first few hours of the incident, command was busy accommodating additional agencies, as the county’s command bus was brought in. About 17 agencies were involved in the incident. In addition to those already mentioned, the following agencies participated:

  • Manatee County Medical Examiner,
  • Manatee County Emergency Management,
  • Manatee County Environmental Management,
  • Manatee County Emergency Communications Center,
  • Florida Highway Patrol,
  • National Transportation Safety Board,
  • Federal Aviation Administration,
  • U.S. Air Force-McDill,
  • U.S. Air Force-Moody,
  • Florida State Emergency Management,
  • American Red Cross, and
  • Salvation Army.

The functions of these agencies involved everything from making joint decisions concerning operations to providing scene security to feeding the responders. The command area was extremely busy during the first three hours, as the ICS system expanded as the incident and military operations were integrated. The various sections set up in close proximity to the command post were the following:

  • apparatus and equipment staging,
  • water supply,
  • press/public information,
  • medical/EMS,
  • military, and
  • rehab.

The site was ideal in that we had a very large open area that was free of traffic and easily controlled. Additionally, use of a state-of-the-art mobile command center enhanced the command post.

Military Objectives

After the initial operations objectives were completed, there was about a two-hour “lull” in the action while we waited for the military personnel and equipment to arrive by helicopter and ground transport. Once the representatives were set up and briefed on the overall operation, we set our next several objectives under the unified command that included an Air Force colonel who functioned in the capacity of the Air Force’s operations chief. The military’s objectives included the following:

  • securing the immediate crash site area,
  • conducting a reconnaissance of the entire area,
  • obtaining pictures of the F-16 canopy and ejection seat, and
  • visiting the Cessna debris and pilot fatality five miles away.

Armed Air Force security forces moved forward from the command area to the area of the dirt mound (which we had used for an observation point earlier) and declared the area off limits. This included the posting of signs that read “No Trespassing-National Defense Area.” This entry point, as well as one on the far side of the crash site, was in place within an hour of the military’s arrival. Fire operations assisted with the military objectives by providing escorts to the location of the canopy, seat, and debris field; providing transportation to the Cessna site; and integrating the military personnel into the Rosedale command structure.

Once these objectives were met, another planning session was held and the secondary phase of military objectives was discussed. The secondary military objectives included the following:

  • photographing the F-16 debris,
  • checking the hydrazine canister for remaining product, and
  • implementing an action plan to completely extinguish the 40 to 50 piles of trees and brush immediately adjacent to the debris field.

By this time, about 10 p.m., the brush, trees, and palmetto bushes within the three-acre “crash site” had burned themselves out; only the large piles were still burning.

ACTION PLAN

Fire operations provided transportation and assistance to the military personnel photographing the debris and checking the canister and allowed them to use breathing apparatus for these tasks. We developed a plan for the remaining fire suppression activities in conjunction with an assistant fire chief from McDill Air Force Base. Since the burning piles were 10 to 20 feet high and posed no real threat to personnel or to the fire’s spreading, we decided to wait until daylight to implement the plan we developed. A brush truck and a two-person crew remained on scene all night as “fire watch.”

The action plan called for the military to provide 1,000 to 1,500 feet of five-inch hose and front-end loaders. We would provide the remaining hose needed to reach the site, an engine, a brush truck, and personnel. At first light, we would lay the hose from the hydrant, near the command area, to the incident (2,500 feet) and use the mounted “deck gun” on E-371 to extinguish the piles as the loaders tore the piles apart. In addition, the brush truck would support the operation as needed. This suppression operation was completed at 5 p.m., nine hours after it began. One interesting note is that the water pressure, the sizes of the water mains in the area, and large-diameter hose enabled E-371’s crew to maintain a 600-gpm flow directly off hydrant pressure 2,500 feet from the hydrant without a pumper relay.

With the completion of the fire suppression activities on November 17, South Manatee’s involvement with the incident was concluded. Although the fire department’s operations were not a huge undertaking in this situation-as compared with a multialarm fire, for instance-this incident lasted more than 24 hours, which does not happen often.

Our chief officers also gained invaluable experience relative to the inner workings of a large, complex ICS and its implementation. Without such a system and properly, well-trained officers, this incident surely would not have been managed as efficiently.

On November 23, South Manatee was called back to the scene to assist a 36-year-old Air Force investigator who was seriously injured in a remote area of the site. While he was operating an all-terrain vehicle, the vehicle went off a small bridge, struck a pole, and ejected him. He suffered a fractured leg, injured ribs, and a head injury. After being removed from the area by a four-wheel-drive vehicle, he was airlifted to a local trauma center.

The military and various agencies stayed on the scene until November 28 (a total of 12 days). The Air Force and a private contractor returned at a later date to excavate the crash site and remove the contaminated soil. The contaminated area was fenced off; warning signs were posted until the work was completed. The site has returned to normal for the most part-just palmetto bushes and pine trees. An upscale development will be built on the site soon. If all goes according to plan, one of South Manatee’s new fire stations will be within a stone’s throw of the crash site. Station F-16?


Hydrazine

Hydrazine is identified as follows:

  • CAS #302-01-2
  • DOT 2029

    It has several industrial uses and is also used in high-performance jets as a propellant fuel. It is a colorless, oily, flammable liquid with an ammonia-like odor. The H-70 blend (70 percent hydrazine/30 percent water) used in the F-16 is to power the emergency power unit (EPU), which can provide up to 10 minutes of emergency electrical and hydraulic power.

    Hydrazine is recognized as one of the most hazardous compounds to ecosystems and human health; it ranks in the top 10 percent of all known toxins. It is a carcinogen and is suspected of having an adverse effect on many human functions and systems, including

    • human development,
    • gastrointestinal functions,
    • liver functions,
    • the immune system,
    • the endocrine system,
    • the respiratory system,
    • the nervous system, and
    • all sensory organs.

    Because of these hazards, the military is researching alternate compounds to replace hydrazine.

No posts to display