QUINCY — Tom Landwehr saw thick, black smoke in the sky coming from Quincy Regional Airport as he responded in an ambulance. He knew it was going to be bad.
A 36-year veteran paramedic who first started volunteering with the Liberty ambulance service before moving full time to the Adams County Ambulance Service, Landwehr was one of the first responders called to the airport on Nov. 19, 1996, when two airplanes collided at the intersection of two runways.
“We were actually the first ambulance to get the call,” Landwehr said. “The other crew that night got the call after us, but they were about six blocks closer, so they got there before us.”
Just after 5 p.m. a commuter aircraft, United Express Flight 5925 with ten passengers and two crew, came in for a landing from Burlington, Iowa, on Quincy Regional Airport’s Runway 13. As the Beechcraft 1900 aircraft rolled out after touchdown, a privately owned Beechcraft King Air A90 with two people aboard was rolling down Runway 4 for takeoff. The two aircraft collided at the intersection of the two runways, killing all 14 people aboard the two planes.
National attention was turned on Quincy as the National Transportation Safety Board launched their investigation into the cause of the crash. The NTSB report, published the following July, found that the most evident cause was miscommunications between the two aircraft and a third plane that was waiting to take off.
A witness told Herald-Whig reporters at the time that the fire from the crash burned for about 20 minutes before emergency responders got to the scene. Quincy’s then-fire chief James Doellman said his crews had the fire under control within 15 minutes of their arrival, but battled flare-ups throughout the evening.
“When we got there, we could see parts of one plane, but we knew two had been involved,” Landwehr recalled. “We took our rig and ran along the other runways, figuring the second plane must have just gotten clipped or something. But it didn’t take long to realize they were both there in one spot.”
The toughest part of the night, Landwehr recalled, was that there simply wasn’t anything they could do. They had to wait for fire equipment to arrive before they could get closer than about 30 yards. When the fire was under control, he said they could see the remains of one person from where they were.
“We have more equipment now,” he said. “We have better equipment. We train for mass casualty events, with planes, or trains, anything with a lot of people like that. But even if there had been fire equipment right there when it happened, I can’t say for sure if it would have helped.”
Landwehr said it’s not really something you ever get used to, but it’s something you have to accept as the nature of the job.
“I’m sorry for the families of those involved that it ever happened,” he said. “And I hope we do whatever we can to make sure it never, ever happens again.”
Killed in the crash aboard the United Express flight were: Katherine Gathje, United Express captain; Darrin McCombs, first officer; passengers James Beville and Mark Desalle of Portland, Maine; Mike Brueck and Deborah Hefflebower, of Burlington, Iowa; Leonard Carlson of Weaver, Iowa; Larry Downing of Des Plaines, Ill.; William Johnson of Danville, Iowa; Dennis Reed of Cincinnati, Ohio; Edward Schneggenburger of Rochester, N.Y.; and Jason Berger, of Boston, Mass.
The King Air A90 crew consisted of Neal Reinwald and Laura Winkleman Brooks. The professional crew was ferrying the plane for a prospective private buyer to inspect.
The Quincy Regional Airport is undergoing renovations right now that are aimed at making the field safer and more efficient. The work, totaling a projected $35 million, includes rebuilding the 7,100 foot primary runway and removing the third runway and parallel taxiway. Ground was broken in early May on the project. The work is being funded by a combination of funds, with around 95% of the cost expected to be covered by state and federal funds.
Current airport director Sandy Shore said Quincy Regional has had a good track record in recent years in regards to FAA safety inspections. Shore said that she is happy with the culture of safety at the airport, and hopes that current plans for improvement will reduce, if not eliminate, the chances of a crash like this happening again.
“We’re very excited about the runway project as it’s going to eliminate some of the safety hazards that still exist out there, specifically at that intersection,” Shore said. “One, by correcting the line of sight at the main runway, and two, by taking two other runway intersections out of the airfield altogether.”