How three Shelter Island residents helped rescue downed pilot

04/15/2015 2:00 PM |
BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO The three residents of Emerson Lane on the Klenawicus Airstrip Tuesday, where on Monday they ran to rescue pilot Michael Russo who had crashed shortly after takeoff. From left, Rich Surozenski, Patricia Anzalone and Amanda Gutiw. In the background is the downed plane.

The Shelter Island three residents of Emerson Lane on the Klenawicus Airstrip Tuesday, where on Monday they ran to rescue pilot Michael Russo who had crashed shortly after takeoff. From left, Rich Surozenski, Patricia Anzalone and Amanda Gutiw. In the background is the downed plane. (Credit: Beverlea Walz)

At about six p.m. Monday, Amanda Gutiw was home on Shelter Island from her job at Sea Tow in Southold.

She was in the kitchen of her house on Emerson Lane, a quiet cul de sac where the backyards border on open fields and the long, mowed grass runway of Klenawicus Field. She decided on chicken salad for dinner and set about making it, half-watching a rerun on the Discovery Channel of “Deadliest Catch.”

At the same time, several hundred yards away at the far end of the runway, Michael Russo was taxiing his single engine Cessna 162 slowly to a spot for take off.

Two doors down on Emerson Place, Patricia Anzalone and Rich Surozenski were in their backyard, gardening and doing yard work, making the place ready for spring. The had both been home all day, Patricia from her job at the Islander and Rich who works as an oil burner technician and is a member of the Shelter Island Fire Department.

They heard the plane taxiing and Patricia got her phone out to take photos and a video of one of the first takeoffs of the season that she thought she’d post on her Facebook page. In the next few seconds, she only snapped a couple of pictures and shooting video was forgotten.

Rich saw the Cessna lift off and gain only 30 feet from the grass and knew immediately something was wrong. The plane was veering sharply, crazily away from the runway toward a stand of trees. His first thought: He’ll never clear those trees.

Rich and Patricia watched, not quite believing their eyes, as the light plane swooped further away from the mowed strip of runway, almost going belly up in the air before partly righting itself and then falling like a stone, crashing nose first into a tangle of briars and thick brush near the trees.

Patricia said the sound was overwhelming. She and Rich immediately started running toward the downed plane. Rich doesn’t remember the sound: “I didn’t hear a thing, it was like sound was blocked off. I was running.”

Patricia said: “It was full adrenaline. I never ran that fast in my life.”

Making dinner in her kitchen, Amanda heard a “loud boom, it’s hard to describe,” and looked out the window to see her neighbors crossing the field on a dead run. She saw the plane across the way and immediately ran out the door and joined Rich and Patricia, the three neighbors racing across the field, covering ground, making for the plane 300 yard or so away.

Later, Amanda said: “You had to act. There was no time to think or contemplate.”

As they approached the crash site they saw children who were getting close to plane. One little girl was sobbing. Patricia shouted at them to get away from the scene.

The Cessna’s side door had been wrenched open from the impact with Michael Russo hanging almost completely out of the plane, twisted toward the ground, held in place by a seatbelt, which had become wrapped around his neck. He was bleeding freely from a deep gash in his forehead and the three neighbors could see there was something wrong with his ankle.

Amanda began an attempt to move him. Patricia was about to tell her not to, fearing they could injure the pilot further, but stopped at the sound, sight and smell of aviation fuel gushing out of the Cessna.

“It was scary,” Patricia said, as they went to work to free Mr. Russo from the wreck. He was conscious, speaking urgently: “Shut it off. Shut it off,” indicating a switch. Rich struggled with and them managed to push the plane’s door free, and the women went to work removing the belt twisted around Mr. Russo’s neck.

Both women were thinking: This thing is going to explode.

They got the belt from around his neck but then it was ensnared around a wrist, but they managed to get that free. Rich noticed there was blood all over the women’s clothes.

Amanda took Mr. Russo under the shoulders, Patricia got him under the knees and they carried him away from the wreck.

They had gone about 100 feet when Shelter Island Police Officer Anthony Rando, the first emergency responder on the scene, “just scooped him up from us,” Amanda said. Officer Rando carried Mr. Russo, now unconscious, he said, another hundred feet to safety where he began first aid and was soon joined by other first responders who took over Mr. Russo’s care.

Officer Rando also noticed the sharp odor of fuel at the scene. He noted that the three neighbors were “calm, very collected, putting themselves in harm’s way. They were on a mission.”

They returned to Amanda’s backyard, watching as a Suffolk County Police helicopter swooped in and a few minutes later airlifted Mr. Russo to Stony Brook University Hospital. As of Wednesday, he remains there in “fair condition,” according to the hospital, with chest contusions and a fractured ankle.

Tuesday morning they woke up sore from performing difficult work fueled by an adrenaline rush. Both women had cuts and welts all over their legs below the knees from the thicket of sharp briars that slashed them as they made their way to and from the plane.

Their thoughts then, and now, are for the safe and speedy recovery of Michael Russo.

Asked about the rescue, which they said took all of about three minutes, Amanda, Rich and Patricia said variations of the same thing: They had to do it, and it was something anyone would have done.

But Monday evening, it hadn’t been just anyone.

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