Plane crash 911 recording highlights difficulties dispatchers can face

Because the cell phone used was inactive, the county department wasn’t able to “ping” the phone as easily as they’d hoped

By David Hurst
The Tribune-Democrat

EBENSBURG, Pa. — Engine problems caused a twin-engine airplane to crash Saturday in a wooded stretch of Cambria Township following a failed landing attempt at the Ebensburg Airport, a 911 tape reveals.

The recording, released to media Monday, also reveals the challenges that the Fort Wayne, Indiana family – and the emergency crews searching for them – faced in the minutes leading up to Saturday’s rescue.

A recorded call with a Cambria County 911 dispatcher revealed the pilot, Wayne “Doug” Zollinger, suffered a head injury and had “no idea” where his plane landed after crashing north of Route 22 near Beulah Road.

And because the cell phone he used was inactive, meaning it was only able to make 911-only calls, the county department wasn’t able to “ping” his phone as easily as they’d hoped – and the initial coordinates sent rescuers in the wrong direction, 911 Supervisor Larry Penatzer said.

‘Engine went out’

Cambria County 911 officials first received a call for help from Zollinger shortly after 1:30 p.m.

Members of his family – the plane’s three passengers – told a dispatcher that the plane was headed toward Altoona for a football game but one of the plane’s engines experienced trouble.

“I was coming from Branson, (Missouri) and stopped in Washington, Indiana, for fuel,” Zollinger said.

An attempt to land the aircraft at the Ebensburg airport was unsuccessful, and they crashed moments later.

Zollinger said his family – his wife, Dawn, and two children – was conscious, but they all sustained injuries and needed help.

The crash left him with a head wound that made it almost impossible to see, the Indiana man told a dispatcher.

He said it was clear he was in the woods, but he often appeared confused, disoriented and was unable to provide his current coordinates.

“I just crashed my plane ... and I don’t know where I’m at,” he told a dispatcher. “There’s nothing but trees around us.”

And because of their injuries, they were unable to exit the damaged plane.

“Can you ping us?” Zollinger’s wife asked. “I think both of my arms are broken.”

‘Can you figure out where we’re at?’

Penatzer said the family was lucky they were able to call for help.

They landed in a cell phone “dead zone” – but the fact their only working phone wasn’t active or registered with a cellular carrier, such as Verizon or AT&T, made it harder to track, Penatzer said.

The first tower “hit” suggested the family was south of Route 22 near Pensacola Road – and emergency crews from several departments were dispatched to the scene, he said.

But there was nothing there to find.

The crumpled plane was actually across the four-lane highway and north of Ebensburg Airport’s east-to-west runway, perhaps a mile to the north in a wooded area south of Beulah Road.

A dispatcher repeatedly asked the plane’s passengers if they could hear sirens getting closer – but they only heard silence and could spot no distinct nearby landmarks to help the 911 employee.

A medical helicopter was also dispatched – to no avail, 911 officials said.

Penatzer said the call was lost several times but fortunately, the family kept calling back.

“We had no other way to reach them,” he said, noting the phone had no active phone number. “The phone call came off of the 911 lines. And it’s a good thing they had a signal because we were trying to contact our first responders in that area and no one had (phone) service.”

Gunfire as a guide

More than 40 minutes passed between the initial call and the moment emergency medical crews arrived to their aid.

Eventually, a second tower “ping” directed responders toward the family, and Zollinger reported hearing sirens.

Then, the sound of shotgun fire intervened nearby.

Responders quickly realized the plane was near a rural shooting range near Beulah Road – and within minutes Nanty Glo responders were able to locate the plane, which hit the ground in the middle of a densely wooded area, Penatzer said.

They used an all-terrain-vehicle to access the family, carrying each one by one to an ambulance and medical helicopter, he said.

Doug and Dawn Zollinger – and their children, Mariah and Zach – were all listed in stable condition Monday by a Memorial Medical Center spokeswoman.

Friends of the family told WANE-TV in their hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, that the family suffered broken bones and bruises in the crash but were all expected to recover.

Crash victims ‘lucky’

Cambria County 911 Coordinator Robbin Melnyk described the family’s ordeal as “horrific” but said they were lucky to be alive.

The Zollinger’s plane was totaled in the crash. And family members told 911 officials that it never caught fire.

The 911 tape captured terrifying moments where the family was trapped inside their aircraft, but also shows the difficulty responders face trying to track down people who are lost, injured – or both – in Cambria County’s woodlands.

Saturday’s plane crash was rare – perhaps the first in two decades, 911 officials said.

But hikers and hunters call for help several times a year, or more, and often have little to point to as a landmark beyond large rocks or a pond, Melnyk said.

“Unfortunately, pinging a phone doesn’t always lead someone to their doorstep,” Melnyk said. “It’s not always that simple.”

The nearest confirmed coordinate might be thousands of meters – perhaps nearly two miles – from the cell phone’s actual location, Penatzer added.

“That’s why having local responders handle calls like this is so important,” Melnyk said, noting that they often know the area’s woods, as well as the roads. “Once we get it narrowed down to one area, they can be the difference when someone is lost.”

Copyright 2017 The Tribune-Democrat

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