IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Plane-crash hero: 'I walked in as far as I could'

Leaking jet fuel and blinding smoke prevented an off-duty firefighter — credited with pulling some victims from the wreckage of a fiery small plane crash — from going after more victims, including a young girl and infant boy who were among the five who died."I walked in as far I could," Ryan Cooper, 30, told TODAY host Matt Lauer from a hospital where he is recovering from heat exhaustion.The
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Leaking jet fuel and blinding smoke prevented an off-duty firefighter — credited with pulling some victims from the wreckage of a fiery small plane crash — from going after more victims, including a young girl and infant boy who were among the five who died.

"I walked in as far I could," Ryan Cooper, 30, told TODAY host Matt Lauer from a hospital where he is recovering from heat exhaustion.

The crash occurred about 8:40 a.m. ET, when a twin-engine Cessna 310 attempted an emergency landing at the Orlando Sanford International Airport. Authorities say the plane clipped the tops of trees and skipped across several yards before crashing into a subdivision near the airport.

The dead included both occupants of the plane: Pilot Bruce Kennedy, 54, a plastic surgeon and the husband of NASCAR official Lesa France Kennedy; and, Michael Klemm, 56, a senior captain with NASCAR Aviation. Three residents of Willowbay Ridge Drive also died: Gabriela Dechat, 4; Janise Joseph-Woodard, 24; and Joseph Woodard, 6 months.

Cooper told TODAY that he had just arrived home and was kissing his wife goodbye as she headed off to work when the crash occurred.

"I looked up. I heard the airplane and saw it crash into both of the houses," said Cooper, a six-year veteran of a neighboring community's fire department. "Immediately, I just grabbed my gear ... I put on all my gear and ran over to do what I could."

Although he did not have breathing apparatus with him, Cooper ran into the Dechat home.

"The little boy was there. I grabbed him and brought him out to the front yard," Cooper said, referring to a 10-year-old boy whose name has not been released. "I went back in. The father, I guess, was still inside looking for the smaller child. I had to grab him and bring him out before he endangered himself any further."

Survivors badly burned

The man, Peter Dechat, 36; the boy; and Dechat's wife, Milagros, 33, were transferred to burn treatment centers in critical condition. Although severely burned, the Dechats pleaded for someone to save their 4-year-old daughter, Gabriela.

Cooper, however, was unable to reach the little girl.

"The jet fuel that was dumping down from the second story to the first floor prevented me from going up those stairs," Cooper said.

As police and firefighters rushed to the scene in response to frantic calls to 911, Cooper turned his attention to the Woodard home next door, which was also burning.

"I went into the other house. There were screams from the other neighbors that there were still people in that second house," Cooper said. “I kicked in the door of that house ... I searched the whole house as well as I could, as long as I could. I actually got lost for a minute ... It went completely black and I wasn't able to see out."

Neighbors Dennis and Kathy Misuraca heard the crash and ran over just as Cooper was bringing the 10-year-old boy out of the Dechat home.

"The little boy was burnt really, really bad," Dennis Misuraca told Lauer. "It looked like he had a flannel shirt on, but he didn't have a shirt on. He was really that burned."

Kathy Misuraca said she will never forget the image of that boy, who somehow managed to give rescuers a thumbs-up as he was being lifted into an ambulance, despite having burns on most of his body.

"I know you are not supposed to touch burn victims. I just kind of stood there and looked at him," Kathy Misuraca said. "I was really saddened."

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the crash. Authorities said Klemm and Kennedy had taken off from Daytona Beach International Airport at 8:23 a.m., with Kennedy at the controls, according to the Associated Press. Before the crash, the pilot radioed in that there was smoke in the cockpit and indicated he was going to attempt an emergency landing in Sanford.