12:00 pm
Tue April 2, 2013

Winston-Salem Neighbors Comfort Each Other After Fatal Plane Crash

Fifty years ago, the neighborhood around Kearns Avenue was an apple orchard. And though fruit trees have long since given way to houses, the Winston-Salem street is still a tranquil place. But on Easter Sunday, a small plane crash shattered the quiet and shook Roma Combs and his neighbors to the core.  "We had just come home from church and we were sitting down to an Easter meal,” said Combs, who has lived on the street for 45 years. “I heard the explosion first and came running out the front door. I looked to the north and there was a huge cloud of smoke whirling over my neighbor's house. And I thought something had exploded at his house. "

Combs and his wife live about six doors down from where the fixed-wing LanCair LC 42 went down in a stand of woods between Kearns Avenue and Graylyn International Conference Center. A Beaufort County couple and their dog died. “I’ll never forget it, especially that sound. I’ve never heard anything like it in my life," he said.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said Dr. Dennis O'Neal, a Beaufort County optometrist, and his wife, Debbie O'Neal, an English instructor at East Carolina University, were flying from North Wilkesboro home to Washington, N.C. Shortly after taking off at 12:35 p.m., the pilot reported a partial loss of engine power to the tower at Piedmont Triad International Airport. The pilot also said they were trying to land at Smith Reynolds Airport.

Megan Wrappe was helping prepare Easter dinner with her family. She says the explosion shook their home.  "And my Dad took off running down the street after we saw the woods were on fire,” she said. “I got there a little bit later, the cops started arriving, we figured out it was a plane after seeing the tail in the trees."

No one on the ground was hurt.

Yellow tape now marks off about 100 yards where burned wreckage is scattered. Wrappe and some of the residents have been allowed to get a closer look.  "You see the front of the plane and more of the broken pieces. And now we know there was a husband and wife and a dog that died in this crash. It puts a somber spin on it," Wrappe said.

According to Winston-Salem police, relatives of the O'Neals have asked if the couple's three children can visit the crash site. The woman who owns the home closest to the crash site has agreed. Meanwhile, residents continue sharing their stories and comforting each other. And although Combs never met the O’Neals, he said he will never forget them. "It was turning into a beautiful day,” he reflected with tears glistening in his eyes. “It's a reminder of how short life can be and how unpredictable it can be."  

The NTSB is expected to issue a preliminary report next week.