Witness: Pilot ‘did everything he could’ to avoid houses

KAYLA CHIARAMONTE COURTESY PHOTO | Burning wreckage from the Shirley plane crash that took the life of David McElroy Sunday.

In his heart, Chris Melendez believes he and his neighbors are alive today because of a pilot’s quick thinking in the cockpit.

Mr. Melendez said he was just about to hop in the shower Sunday morning when he heard a thunderous crash outside his Helene Avenue home in Shirley. His fiancée, who had just pulled out of the driveway on her way to take his children to a petting zoo, phoned him frantically.

“She just kept yelling, ‘Get out of the house! Get out of the house!’” Mr. Melendez, 42, recalled a day later.

As he reached his front yard, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

A single-engine plane owned by David McElroy, a 53-year-old pilot from Orient, had taken off from Brookhaven Calabro Airport shortly after 11:30 a.m. before crashing into a dumpster right outside Mr. Melendez’ home a mile from the airport. As the Shirley resident began his sprint to the crash, the plane exploded.

“All I could see were 30-foot high flames,” Mr. Melendez said.

He grabbed a garden hose and immediately began spraying into the cockpit in an attempt to save Mr. McElroy, who was burning about four feet away, just out of reach.

“He reached out to me,” Mr. Melendez said. “Then I saw him take his last breath.”

Suffolk police confirmed Monday that Mr. McElroy, who FAA records show is the owner of the plane, died in the crash. The crash also killed passenger Jane Unhjem, 60, of Goshen, N.Y., who died eight hours later. Another person aboard the plane, Erik Unhjem, 61, was listed in critical condition at Stony Brook University Medical Center.

A licensed pilot, Erik Uhnjem was also in the cockpit when the plane crashed, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson told the media Monday.

It is not yet clear to investigators who was flying the plane at the time of the crash.

BRIAN HARMON PHOTO | Chris Melendez and Kimberly Pastore, witnesses to the crash and its aftermath.

Mr. Melendez said he and his fiancée, who saw the plane touch ground, believe there would have been more victims if not for the pilot’s ability to navigate the plane away from the houses on their street.

Mr. Melendez said his fiancée, Kimberly Pastore, watched as the pilot steered away from high tension wires near their home. The plane then closely navigated around several homes before landing perilously in a dumpster on Mr. Melendez’ property line, 30 yards from his living room, he said.

Mr. Melendez added that if Mr. McElroy was flying the plane, he “paid with his life” to save others.

“I believe [the pilot] did everything he could to avoid hitting any houses,” Mr. Melendez said.

NTSB Investigator Brian Rayner said the engine of the Socata TB10 was in “surprisingly good shape” and will be examined further after removal from the aircraft.

Investigators do not know where the plane was headed, officials said.

Louie Cruz of Shirley was doing yard work when he heard what he thought was a car crash on William Floyd Parkway. He ran around the bend to see the fire and smoke from the plane crash, the second he’s witnessed in his Shirley neighborhood.

He said he saw his neighbors pulling the Unhjems from the plane. Like Mr. Melendez, he said Mr. McElroy couldn’t be reached.

“No one could get to him,” Mr. Cruz said.

Mr. Melendez said he was forced to stay at his parents’ home nearby last night, as Helene Avenue remained closed outside his house. He was hoping to be let back into his home this afternoon.

He said he’s having a hard time shaking thoughts of Sunday’s crash from his head.

“I wish there was more I could do for [Mr. McElroy],” he said. “It was just horrible. I’ll never be able to forget him.”

gparpan@timesreview.com

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