OWLS HEAD — Two University of Maine students and a 2011 graduate died in Friday’s fiery plane crash at the Knox County Regional Airport, university officials confirmed Saturday night.
The university said William “B.J.” Hannigan III, 24, of South Portland; David Cheney, 22, of Beverly, Mass.; and Marcelo Rugini, a foreign exchange student from Brazil who was living in Nobleboro, died after the Cessna 172 they were in collided with a pickup truck on the main runway at the airport.
After the collision, the plane climbed briefly, veered to the left and then crashed into a wooded area near the runway. The plane then burst into flames and burned so badly that as of Saturday, authorities were still unable to determine its tail number.
The Knox County Sheriff’s Office said the pickup was driven by Stephen Turner, 62, of Camden. Turner, who was not hurt in the collision, was driving across the runway in what authorities said was a common practice at the airport, which has no tower to control the movement of planes and vehicles.
Authorities had said earlier Saturday that they had the names of the three men they believed had been killed in the crash, but would not be able to confirm the identities until DNA testing is completed later this week.
The university put out its statement Saturday night, based on reports from members of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. All three were members of the fraternity, and Cheney was its president.
Robert Dana, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said Hannigan was the pilot of the plane. He graduated from the university in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.
Cheney was a business major, and Rugini, who was from Muliterno, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, was an economics major.
The university said counselors will be available for students, and faculty and staff members who were having trouble dealing with the tragedy could get help through an employee assistance program.
Dana said the university will determine whether there will be a memorial on campus after the Thanksgiving break and after conferring with members of the victims’ families and fraternity members.
The Bangor Daily News reported that Lucas Bernardi, another member of the fraternity, said the group had planned to go sightseeing over eastern Maine on the flight. He said he was supposed to join the three, but did not go.
Bernardi said he didn’t know why the plane had landed at Owls Head.
A recording said the phone number to the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house was out of order and a campus security officer said an officer was stationed in front of the frat house Saturday night because members of the fraternity did not want to speak to the media immediately.
According to the sheriff’s office, Turner, who is a pilot who works at the airport, was driving across the runway after helping to put a plane in a hangar shortly before 5 p.m. Friday. The sheriff’s office said it was common practice for people at the airport to cross runways in vehicles.
A message left at Turner’s house was not returned Saturday.
Jeff Northgraves, the airport manager, agreed it’s a regular occurrence at the airport. He said the airport requires that people who will be driving on runways and taxiways receive training and have radios to hear communications from planes in the vehicles they are using.
Northgraves said he knew the driver of the pickup had been trained and the Sonoma pickup had a radio.
It appears that the driver had his radio tuned to the airport frequency, as required by airport procedures, Northgraves said. Although the pilot of the airplane was heard on the radio at one point, it was not clear Saturday if he ever announced that he was taking off.
Northgraves said the pilot was operating under visual flight rules, which do not require any radio announcements, unlike those flying under instrument flight rules. Visual rules apply to airplanes that are operated in conditions that do not require the use of guidance instruments. When weather conditions are adverse, instrument flight rules are invoked to make sure planes navigating through fog, clouds and other conditions where visibility is limited have more sophisticated instrumentation.
Visual flight rules also do not require the pilot to file a flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration.
On Saturday, investigators from the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were on the scene trying to determine the sequence of events that led to the deadly crash.
A Maine State Forest Service helicopter retrieved the men’s bodies from the woods and took them to a nearby field. They were then transported to the state Medical Examiner’s Office.
Northgraves said it is believed the plane collided with the right front of the truck just as it was lifting off around 4:45 p.m. in clear but dark conditions. It managed to climb another 150 feet before crashing into dense woods to the left of the runway and bursting into flames.
The mood among airport workers was glum Saturday. Kevin Waters, director of operations for Penobscot Island Air, said he heard the airplane crash. “I heard a thump,” he said.
Penobscot Island Air provides service to seven offshore islands and the mainland communities of Bar Harbor, Belfast, Rockland and Stonington and is based at the Knox County airport.
“When tragedy happens, it kind of hits the aviation community hard,” Waters said.
The Knox County Regional Airport is one of only six out of the state’s 36 public airports, including Portland, Bangor, Augusta, Bar Harbor and Presque Isle, with scheduled commercial flights.
About 85 percent of the annual 55,000 takeoffs and landings at the airport involve airplanes without sophisticated instrumentation.
The airport is home to a $4 million terminal, constructed in 2010.
The airport has been the scene of other fatal crashes over the years, including a 1979 crash in which a de Havilland Twin Otter turboprop crashed short of the runway in foggy weather, killing 17 people.
About 80 aircraft are based at the Knox County Regional Airport.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: