A Utah couple have been tentatively identified as the victims of a fiery plane crash Sunday night into the McDowell Mountains in north Scottsdale, police said.
Duane Shrontz, 57, and Joanne Shrontz, 55, of Alta, Utah, crashed after leaving the Scottsdale Airport bound for Santa Fe, N.M., said Scottsdale police officer Scott Reed. The couple had spent an hour at the airport after arriving from San Diego. It is unclear why they made the stop, though Reed said they were not in town for the Phoenix Open.
Authorities said they believe the couple’s plane had a full tank of fuel because of the burned desertscape at the crash site.
The remains will be positively identified by the Maricopa County Forensic Science Center in Phoenix, Rural/Metro Fire Capt. Tim Cooper said.
A recovery team Monday was flown to the top a 3,700-foot mountain ridge and hiked down to the crash site west of Thompson Peak. The team photographed the mangled plane and the couple’s remains, and recovered a wallet, purse and overnight bag. Burned debris was strewn across a 200-square-foot swath of mountainside, Cooper
"It looked like a big ball of fire," said eyewitness Iva Edwards, who lives in the McDowell Mountain Ranch community along Bell Road, near Thompson Peak Parkway.
"For a long time, it just burned," Edwards said.
The plane crashed just below the craggy peak six miles northeast of the airport, said Mike Fergus, Northwestern Mountain Region spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA will investigate the crash and report its findings to the National Transportation Safety Board, the lead agency for all civil plane crashes in the nation.
The owner of the plane is registered as NBD Equipment Finance of Novi, Mich., according to a database search on the Internet.
The Piper Aerostar 601P is a twin-engine, six-seat plane, and was built in 1980.
Quiet Skies founder John Hoeppner said his group sees the crash as a tragedy and extends its sympathies to the victims’ family.
It also criticized the FAA’s Northwest 2000 rerouting plan that was implemented in February 2002. Hoeppner said his group believes that the new plan lowered flight altitudes for area airports and criss-crossed traffic patterns, creating the potential for more crashes.
"It is not if this will happen over the communities of Cave Creek, Carefree, north Scottsdale, New River or north Phoenix, it is when," he said.
Rita Mendelson, a resident of McDowell Mountain Ranch who witnessed the crash, said Sunday night was dark.
"So I don’t know how anybody could see in a plane," she said.
Though it was a dark night, the glow of city lights partially illuminates the McDowell Mountains, said Scottsdale City Councilman Bob Littlefield, a flight instructor.
"When I want to teach my students night-flying, I have to take them out to Wickenburg or somewhere because it’s too bright around here," Littlefield said. "Even if you can’t see the mountain, if there is no moon, you can certainly see how it blanks out the lights. So it’s not as if it’s hard to see.
"Plus, of course, all pilots have a map, which shows the terrain locations and elevations," he added. "In theory, you are supposed to know that a mountain is there. And you are not supposed to run into it."
A Mesa couple who worked for America West Airlines crashed into the same mountain range in a small plane in 2000.
The bodies of Charles Culley, 55, a part-time pilot, and Lynn Kissel, 48, a flight attendant, were discovered by a private helicopter that spotted bits of the wreckage strewn on the mountainside and notified authorities.
Investigators believe, based on the condition of the bodies, that the plane crashed a few days before it was found.