A small plane crashed into a warehouse in an industrial area in Lakeland this morning, staring a chemical fire that incinerated the wreckage and likely the bodies of a pilot and passenger, firefighters said.
The plane, which was having engine trouble just before 10 a.m., crashed through the roof of a former plastics warehouse in the 5300 block of Allen K. Breed Highway, said Janel Vasallo, spokeswoman for the Lakeland Fire Department. Explosive chemicals and propane stored in the warehouse forced firefighters to be cautious and keep their distance while fighting the fire, Vasallo said.
When they were finally able to get a closer view of the crash scene, there was no evidence of the bodies or even the plane, Vasallo said.
“Because the high temperature at which the fire burned because of the chemicals, it’s not likely we’ll be able to recover the bodies,” she said. “We don’t see any evidence of it now. We have yet to find anything.”
The identification of the pilot and the passenger was not immediately available but officials believe they are Terry Lee Butt Sr., 62, of Winter Haven, and student Gregory Todd Geng, 41, of Hudson.
Greg Geng owned Admiral Air Cooling and Heating in New Port Richey since 1998, according to information on his LinkedIn account. A man who answered the telephone at the business declined to comment on Geng Thursday afternoon.
The plane was a Piper Apache A23 from Tailwheels Etc. Flight School, based at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, which is less than 5 miles from the crash site, Vasallo said.
No one was in the warehouse at the time of the crash, Vasallo said.
Staff at Tailwheels Etc. released a statement on Thursday afternoon asking for prayers for families of the victims.
“There was an accident this morning in which we lost one of our aircraft, along with the lives of close friends,” the statement said. “We have no further information as to the cause, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will have an investigation into the crash.”
The fire took about an hour to put out, but there was a concern that at least one of the chemicals, which must be kept wet, would explode if it dried, Vasallo said.
A hazardous materials team from Polk County was called to the scene, Vasallo said.
“There were no explosions that we know of but the potential was there so we had to take all precautions,” Vasallo said.
Crews used unmanned, remote controlled equipment to apply water to the site hours after the fire was extinguished to stabilize the chemicals inside and keep temperatures down.
Once the scene is deemed safe, Lakeland Police Crime Scene Investigators planned to gather evidence, Vasallo said.
The warehouse belongs to Key Safety Systems, which designs, develops and manufactures automotive safety systems including air bags and seat belts. The company also has offices on the site, nearly a mile from the warehouse. Employees were not in any danger and were not evacuated, Vasallo said. Residents in the area were also safe because the warehouse is not near any homes and there is a pasture behind it.
Stay with TBO.com for more on this story.