SCITUATE, R.I. -- Two Pilgrim Airlines pilots successfully crash-landed their burning plane by poking their heads out the windows as smoke and flames filled their cockpit, federal investigators were told Tuesday.
The 'graphic' account of Sunday's landing by Pilgrim Flight 458, which developed a cockpit fire en route from Groton, Conn., to Boston, came from a USAir flight engineer, who was one of eight passengers interviewed by National Transportation Safety Board investigators.
NTSB spokesman Brad Dunbar said Harry Polychron, 35, of East Lyme, Conn., told the investigators that smoke started into the passenger section from the right side of the cockpit. It got heavier and then smoke started coming from the left side as well.
Then flames broke out and Polychron tried to smother with his coat, Dunbar said.
'He (Polychron) glanced into the cockpit, smoke was really coming out of it, and the pilots had their heads out their windows while the cockpit itself, obviously was on fire.'
Dunbar said Polychron, who took the Pilgrim plane to catch a flight of his own in Boston, 'had very high praise indeed for the pilots in a successful landing.'
The NTSB official was asked, at a news briefing, what he meant by 'successful.'
'Only one person died,' Dunbar said.
The crash killed Mrs. Loretta Stanczak of Manchester, N.H., who apparently burned to death in her seat.
Pilot Thomas Prinster, 36, of North Kingstown, R.I., remained in critical condition at Rhode Island Hospital. Copilot Lyle Hoog, 27, of Groton, Conn., was listed as 'satisfactory for intensive care.' Prinster had burns over 50 percent of his body. Hoog had burns over 25 percent of his.
Eight of the passengerso remained hospitalized. Two were listed as 'satisfactory for intensive care,' five were in satisfactory condition, one was in good condition.
Dunbar said it was clear from Monday and Tuesday interviews with passengers and examination of evidence that the pilots did some gutsy flying to bring the plane down.
'There also was some level-headed leadership by the flight engineer and the other passengers,' Dunbar said.
After trying without success to snuff out the fire, Polychron ran back into the passenger section, bashed out two or three windows with a tennis racket, and then crouched on the floor for the plane's 'hard landing' on the 18-to-24-inch thick ice of the Scituate Reservoir.
He suffered a dislocated shoulder in the crash, helped several passengers out of the burning plane, then went back in for more, Dunbar said.
Workers hired by Pilgrim Airlines tried without success Tuesday to remove the wreckage from the middle of the huge reservoir.
They used a smaller tractor-like vehicle to move a severed wing and engine to firmer ice, dismantled part of the tail section and took pieces of it to shore. Work on the charred remains of the fuselage was to resume Wednesday morning.
Federal investigators said they were confident their probe will pinpoint the cause of the fatal fire, even though virtually all evidence was destroyed.
Dunbar said investigators would interview the co-pilot within a few days. He said the pilot was in no condition to be questioned.