Local News

Plane Crashes Into Popular Clayton Restaurant; Pilot Killed

Posted September 21, 2007 9:31 a.m. EDT
Updated September 24, 2007 6:34 a.m. EDT

— The pilot of a single-engine plane died Friday morning when the aircraft crashed into McCall's BBQ and Seafood Restaurant in Clayton, authorities said.

The plane slammed into the front of the popular restaurant, at 10365 U.S. Highway 70 West, shortly after 10 a.m. Dwayne West, EMS director of Johnston County, said the pilot died in the crash, but the person's name hasn't been released yet.

The Federal Aviation Administration registry lists the plane as a fixed-wing North American Navion built in 1947. It was registered to a man in Chantilly, Va.

Matt Lutz said he was sitting in traffic when he saw the plane coming from the clouds. He said he believed the pilot tried to veer away from traffic before the plane bounced on the parking lot and crashed into the restaurant.

The restaurant's parking lot was littered with debris, and the front wall of the building was knocked out. Pieces of wreckage also were found on Hobbs Street, which is the block behind the restaurant.

The body of the plane remained in the restaurant after the crash, and an Urban Search and Rescue team from Raleigh examined the wreckage. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were expected to arrive in Clayton Saturday morning.

The cause of the accident wasn't known Friday, but eyewitnesses said they thought the plane had engine trouble.

WRAL Meteorologist Mike Maze said flying conditions were poor at the time of the accident. Cloud ceilings were between 100 and 400 feet, and fog and drizzle limited visibility to a quarter-mile to a half-mile, he said.

The crash occurred about eight miles away from the Johnston County Airport. The FAA couldn't confirm where the plane took off from or where it was headed, but a spokeswoman for Horry County, S.C., said officials believe the plane took off from the Conway-Horry Airport Friday morning.

Ten McCall's employees were in the kitchen area, located in the back of the restaurant, at the time of the crash. One was taken to a nearby hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, but there were no other injuries, authorities said.

"We were in back just getting ready to open when we heard an explosion," employee Santana Santos said. "We went into the dining room to see if anyone else was in there, and when we walked in, we couldn't see anything but smoke. So, we just started screaming (to see) if anyone was there."

Authorities and witnesses said the timing of the crash was fortuitous.

McCall's opens for lunch on weekdays at 11 a.m. People were waiting in cars to go inside when the plane slammed into the restaurant.

"It could have been a whole lot worse, a whole lot worse," employee Roger Brown said. "My daughter would have been without her father. That was the first thing on my mind."

Terry Tyner, the restaurant's general manager, said he was sitting in his office working on a catering order when he heard an explosion.

"I didn't know what happened. It blew me back in my chair. The ceiling fell down, and the fire was flying, coming out of the ceiling," he said. Insulation from the ceiling came "falling just like balls of fire, just like dropping balls of paper on fire down on you," he said.

Tyner said his first instinct was to put the fire out but then he rushed from the building with the other employees.

"We were scared," Santos said. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared. It was crazy."

Fifteen fire and rescue crews and 20 police units responded to the accident scene, and U.S. 70 remained closed for hours as emergency personnel investigated.

All lanes of the highway were reopened by mid-afternoon Friday, but traffic was heavy and moving slowly through the area for a few hours after that, authorities said.

Patricia Alton said she was standing on her balcony at a nearby apartment complex when she saw the plane go into the building.

"I could tell the plane was too low. I looked up, and there he was, tipping the trees at the back of my balcony and sailing very fast. The engine was wide open," Alton said.

Lee Underwood said he was reading a book at home in the neighborhood behind McCall's Friday morning when the force of the crash knocked the book from his hand.

"I heard this loud ... noise," Underwood said, adding that part of the propeller gouged the curb outside his house and landed under a tree in his front yard.

He and a firefighter friend then ran into the restaurant and searched unsuccessfully for survivors.

"All you could see was a few chairs and nothing but smoke and what looked like part of a plane," he said.

Eyewitness George Lee said the plane crashed to the right of the restaurant's entrance. Kevin McLamb of Hudson Hardware, whose business is yards away from McCall's, said he heard an explosion and felt an aftershock.

"It was really scary," said Nicole McCain, who drove up to the restaurant immediately after the crash. "I've seen quite a bit of stuff, and that's the worst I've seen."