National News

Florida Plane Crash in Dense Fog Kills 5 on Christmas Eve

Posted December 25, 2017 12:42 a.m. EST

He arrived around 6:30 a.m. on Sunday bearing the small gifts that the employees at a municipal Florida airport had come to expect from him. (On Christmas Eve, they were cookies.)

He also dropped off a flight plan that indicated he would take an approximately 45-minute flight to the Florida Keys for a family getaway before returning later in the day.

But shortly after taking off in dense fog near Tampa, the pilot, John H. Shannon, 70, and four others — including two of his daughters — were killed in a crash, the authorities said. The twin-engine plane burst into flames after going down at Bartow Municipal Airport in Polk County, Florida.

The Cessna aircraft took off despite thick fog that had settled over the airport shortly before sunrise and had limited visibility to less than one-fifth of a mile.

“No one should have attempted to take off in a small plane in that weather,” Grady Judd, the Polk County sheriff, said at a news conference on Sunday.

An airport employee who was filming the fog on a cellphone recorded the sounds of the plane taking off and crashing, Judd said. The fog was so thick that the plane could not be seen in the video, he said.

Also killed on Sunday were two of Shannon’s daughters, Olivia Shannon, 24, and Victoria Shannon Worthington, 26, as well as Worthington’s husband, Peter Worthington, 27. A family friend, Krista Clayton, 32, was also on board, the authorities said. The group had planned to eat lunch in Key West.

“It’s a tragedy of monumental proportions when it happens on Christmas Eve,” said Judd, who said he had been friends with John Shannon for years.

John Shannon had been planning to take the trip from Lakeland, Florida, where he lived, to the Florida Keys with his daughters for the holidays, said John Liguori, a friend. Over coffee several days ago, John Shannon told him he would depart on Christmas Eve or Christmas, depending on the weather.

“More than the flight, he was looking forward to spending time with his two girls and the husband of his daughter,” Liguori, a lawyer in Lakeland, said in a phone interview.

Victoria Worthington and her husband arrived on Friday from Baltimore, where they lived. She taught fourth-grade English at a public school in Baltimore, and Peter Worthington attended law school. They were married in June, and her father’s Facebook profile photo shows him with his daughters at her wedding.

Olivia Shannon attended Southeastern University, a private Christian college in Lakeland. Clayton, a middle school teacher, had a husband and two children — a 3-year-old girl and an 18-month-old.

Liguori said that John Shannon, a longtime personal injury lawyer, changed his lifestyle after he separated from the daughters’ mother when they were young. He gave up golf and devoted himself to them, he said. John Shannon had another daughter from a previous marriage, Liguori said.

John Shannon was still practicing law, and had also embraced two other passions: politics and planes. He ran for Florida state representative in 2014 as a Republican and lost in a primary election by fewer than 175 votes. In 2010 he received his pilot’s license and flew regularly, including on trips to Alabama to visit a daughter in college, Liguori said.

He said that John Shannon, a former Marine, took both his legal practice and flying seriously. “He was very focused when he flew,” he said.

On Sunday morning, the Cessna 340 briefly lifted off the runway but quickly plunged to the ground, the authorities said. A sheriff’s deputy who responded to a 911 call found the wreckage in flames in a grass field.

The cause of the crash is under investigation. But Judd said it appeared that fog could have been a factor in the accident. About 45 minutes before the plane took off, the National Weather Service in Tampa reported low visibility at regional airports and forecast worsening fog after sunrise. Visibility at the Bartow airport was 0.15 miles at 7:15 a.m., the Weather Service said.

“That’s being quite generous,” Cindy Barrow, the executive director at the Bartow airport, said in an interview. “What I was understanding was that visibility was pretty much zero.”

Barrow said that the control tower was closed for Christmas Eve but that pilots like John Shannon can decide to take off on their own. She noted that pilots who fly in those conditions must be experienced because they have to use a plane’s instruments, as opposed to looking outside, to determine speed, altitude and direction.

Judd said a pilot with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office who was at the airport at the time of the crash told him that conditions were unsafe for small aircraft. “The conditions were not conducive for taking off this morning,” the sheriff said.