Catawba Plane Crash Possibly Caused by "In-Flight Break Up"

Six men from Illinois and California are dead following a Catawba plane crash that occurred on July 1, 2017, as the group was bound for a Canadian fishing trip in a Cessna 421 C. The Price County Sheriff’s Office in Wisconsin, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are conducting ongoing investigations into the crash, but the wreckage indicates that the plane likely broke up in flight. What caused the plane to break up during flight will be determined by investigators.

Photo credit: WSAW-TV 7

Cessna Plane Crash Occurred in Early Morning Hours

The Cessna 421 C was piloted by 70-year-old Kevin James King. King was a resident of Bensenville, Illinois, and was the only one on board certified to fly the aircraft. A Cessna 421 C can accommodate between six and seven passengers, depending on the plane's year. Six men, including King, were killed when the plane crashed.

The plane had departed from Waukegan, Illinois, and was headed for Winnipeg, Manitoba, a city in central Canada. King had been in contact with air traffic control, but at about 1:53 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, July 1, 2017, the communication ended. The Air Marine Operations Center contacted the Price County Sheriff's Office at 3:21 a.m., saying that "[the aircraft] had dropped in altitude and they lost radio contact," according to Lt. Gabe Lind with the Sheriff's Office. 

Two deputies from the Prince County Sheriff's Office were sent to investigate the last known location of the plane. They quickly found debris on the highway, with visible evidence that further debris had been scattered through the nearby forest and swamp areas.  

Recovery Efforts in Wisconsin Plane Crash Aided by Private Helicopter Pilot 

Emergency first responders and volunteer firefighters from nearby towns joined with the Sheriff's Office in rescue and recovery efforts, but the thick brush and swamp areas slowed progress, leading teams to have to search the area in a tightly-joined line.

Lt. Lind ultimately contacted the local airport manager, who sought out assistance from a private helicopter pilot planning to display his helicopter in the upcoming air show.

It was from the air that the pilot and rescue workers were able to locate the main site of the small plane crash, inside the forest and about 400-500 yards from where searchers were looking. The fuselage was also located at the main crash site, and once found, it became clear to emergency personnel that no one had survived the crash.

Passengers of Downed Plane Included Two Father-Son Pairs

There were five passengers, in addition to King, killed in the Catawba plane crash. They were:

-          James Francis, 63, from Norco, California
-          Thomas DeMauro, 56, from Bensenville, Illinois
-          Kyle DeMauro, 21, from Bensenville, Illinois
-          Charles Tomlitz, 69, from Addison, Illinois
-          George Tomlitz, 45, from Brookfield, Illinois

Thomas and Kyle DeMauro were father and son, respectively, as were Charles and George Tomlitz, and the group had done a similar fly-in fishing trip in the past. King was the DeMauros' neighbor and had a reputation in the area for being an accomplished pilot as well as for owning multiple planes. Francis has been identified as a friend, but it is not clear which man or men he was friends with.

Both Charles Tomlitz and Thomas DeMauro worked with the Bensenville school district, DeMauro as the physical education teacher for Tioga Elementary School, and Tomlitz as a maintenance director for the district.

The evening of the Wisconsin plane crash, Tioga Elmentary School posted an update to their Facebook page informing students and families of the fatal incident. Shawn King, whose father was piloting the plane and also killed, was the first to comment his condolences on the update. A memorial page titled “Tioga Remembers Mr. DeMauro and Chuck Tomlitz” was created by the Tioga community soon after.

Nina Trader, now 35, was a student of DeMauro and said in an interview with USA Today that his care for and interest in his students was easy to see. Trader also recalled DeMauro and his wife bringing their newborn son Kyle to the school (Kyle was killed in the crash).

"I don't know anybody who didn't love Mr. DeMauro," Trader said. "He was so beloved."  

Roberta Murphy, the co-president of the Bensenville Education Association, created a GoFundMe site to raise funds to cover burial costs for both DeMauro and Tomlitz, and though the site had set a goal of only $500 it had raised $13,000 as of July 6, 2017. Another GoFundMe site was started to raise money for DeMauro’s wife and younger son, and, as of July 6, 2017, it had raised $10,000 of its $12,000 goal. 

Catawba Plane Crash Investigation Ongoing

The Price County Sheriff's office announced on July 5, 2017, that the on-site investigations being conducted by themselves, the FAA and the NTSB were complete, and that the wreckage had been taken off-site for examination. A preliminary report from the NTSB generally takes about 10 days to be completed, and a full report from the organization may take more than a year.

A press conference with NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss was held on Monday, July 3, 2017. During that conference, Weiss stated that the debris from the Catawba plane crash indicated there was an "in-flight break up." Weiss said investigators were still working to determine if the "local weather phenomenon" that King and the air traffic controllers had been discussing prior to the crash was a factor.

Weiss made it clear, however, that the initial report was not definitive and that they had not yet found a cause for the private plane crash.

"This is just the beginning of the investigation," Weiss said. "We have not ruled anything in or out."

Weather reports for the area suggest that there was still low cloud cover at the time of the crash, but that it had begun clearing up at about 2:15 a.m.