When spectators at the spring football game on March 23 noticed black smoke blooming up into the sky behind Fifth Third Bank Stadium, Kennesaw State University police officers wasted no time in responding.
Capt. Tim Murphy of the KSU Police Department said he and his fellow officers followed the smoke for about a mile east before they stumbled upon a scene that university law enforcement rarely encounters: a deadly plane crash.
A twin-engine plane had crashed in the front yard of a house off of Bells Ferry Road around 7:15 p.m. The Cessna 500 Citation I exploded upon impact, setting the house it had landed in front of ablaze and damaging the adjacent home. The pilot, 78-year-old Robert George Westlake of Atlanta, did not survive the impact.
Scott Patterson, a civilian and a pilot himself, said he was eating at a restaurant on Chastain Road when he first saw the plane. It seemed at first to be flying normally, as though it were on autopilot.
“About 30 seconds after he passed us I noticed he started into a barrel roll,” Patterson said. “From that point, he went into a 90-degree bank turn coming across, and then the nose dropped and he started to spiral toward the ground.”
By the time KSU police arrived at the scene, debris was strewn across the street and actively exploding, and the roof of the home that had been hit was on fire.
“It looked like the aircraft had been chopped up and stacked up in a pile,” Murphy said.
Although campus police is trained to respond to fires and emergency situations, none of the officers present had ever been to the scene of a plane crash. To make matters even more dangerous, no one was wearing any protective gear to shield them from the flames.
Murphy admitted that, for a moment, he was shaken by the intensity of the scene. Then he and his fellow officers went into what he called their “normal mode of training.”
Assisted by Cobb County Police and Georgia State Patrol, who were also at the football game at the time of the crash, two KSU police officers kicked in the front door of the flaming house and began searching for injured residents. Other officers looked for entry points at the back of the house.
The remaining responders assisted in clearing the neighboring houses, checked the area for injured residents and connected water hoses to douse the flames.
“It was definitely the most heroic act I’ve seen in my career,” Murphy said.
After 45 minutes on the scene, the officers determined that the homes were unoccupied and there were no injuries. Officials later said the homeowners were away at the time of the crash.
Murphy said he was proud of his team and impressed by the officers’ bravery.
“Without hesitation and with unwavering devotion to duty, [the officers] entered into an extremely dangerous area in an effort to locate the people in the house and affected area,” Murphy said in an email. “By their undaunted courage, they all reflect great credit upon themselves and upholding the highest traditions of the law enforcement and the public safety profession.”
Federal investigators determined that the plane, which was owned by Atlanta-based Shelter Charter Services, was flying from Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, Ohio, en route to Fulton County Airport when it crashed in the Piedmont Hills subdivision in Kennesaw.
The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the crash but said in a press briefing that the pilot indicated he was having trouble with the plane’s auto-pilot prior to it going down. Investigators from the safety board are now reviewing data from the plane’s black box.
Sierra Hubbard, Abbie Bythewood, Cory Hancock and Ryan Basden contributed to this story.