An elementary school in Bensenville is mourning the deaths of two staff members who were among six people found dead among the wreckage of a small private airplane that officials said crashed into a rural Wisconsin forest Saturday morning.
A Facebook post from Tioga Elementary School said the staff members were Thomas DeMauro, a physical education teacher, and Charles “Chuck” Tomlitz, a maintenance director.
“Mr. DeMauro and Mr. Tomlitz will be missed by all the Tioga Community,” the post reads.
Memorial posters, balloons and a candle were placed at the front entrance of the school on Memorial Road just off of York Road in the west suburb.
The names of the other victims have not been released as of Monday morning.
Lt. Gabe Lind of the Price County Sheriff’s Department said his office first got a call at 3:21 a.m. Saturday when the Air Marine Operations Center “lost contact with an aircraft in the area.”
“It had dropped in altitude and they lost radio contact,” he said.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said there was a discussion between the pilot of the plane and air traffic controllers about “local weather phenomenon,” but further details weren’t released.
Lind said the initial response for the loss of contact was to send two deputies to the plane’s last known location, in Harmony Township.
“They found a debris field right there on the state highway,” Lind said of those deputies. They quickly sent out a request for assistance, he said, because it was clear the debris was strewn over a large area, including into thick woods and swamp.
Along with volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel from surrounding towns, Lind put in a call to the local airport, because there was to be an air show during the weekend and Lind wondered if the plane was bound for the event, he said. It wasn’t, they learned, but the airport manager still reached out to one of the pilots who was going to display his helicopter, and that pilot volunteered to take up the helicopter to help locate the crash site.
“He was actually able to locate the main area of the wreckage that was in the forest, about 4 to 500 yards away,” Lind said.
It saved the rescue team time because they had been walking shoulder to shoulder, slowly pushing through the vegetation and swampland, he said. The pilot didn’t ask for anything in return for putting his helicopter in the air to help police with the vantage point, Lind said.
“I couldn’t even tell you his name if I wanted to, but he jumped at the chance and it was very instrumental in locating the wreckage quickly,” Lind said.
Once the fuselage was located, it was clear there were no survivors. Depending on the year it was made, the Cessna 421 can seat 6 or 7 people, he said.
Price County Sheriff Brian S. Schmidt said the plane took off from the Chicago area and was heading to Canada for a fishing trip when it quickly dropped altitude for an unknown reason. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration continue to investigate, he said. It wasn’t known if the passengers were from Chicago.
The crash was near the small towns of Phillips, Kennan and Catawba, farther north than the city of Minneapolis and about 365 miles from Chicago.
Sandy Jensen, who owns the Happy Daze bar in Kennan, said she first heard about the plane crash from a phone call, then Facebook; she also was told the airplane was occupied by a group of men who were heading to Canada for a fishing trip.
Jensen jumped into action when she heard there were hungry volunteers who’d been up all night, facing some pretty harsh mental and physical conditions. She wanted to do what she could.
So she filled the grill at her bar with burgers, topped them with cheese, wrapped them up and threw in a bucket of cheese curds. She met a volunteer at the end of the road and handed over the food; she even included some candy from the Fourth of July parade, she said.
“Hopefully everybody got taken care of to get them through a little longer that night,” she said.
Jensen said it is shocking to hear about such a tragedy in your own backyard.
“I can’t help out everybody but I try to do what I can do, just because. That’s just how I am. The world would be a whole lot better place if everybody would just help each other and not hurt each other.”
The Associated Press contributed.