Citizens rushed to free pilot from crash

EAST MIDDLEBURY — Perley Jerome was starting a vehicle in the Airport Auto parking lot off School House Hill Road in East Middlebury at around 11:30 a.m. last Friday when he heard a disconcerting sputtering noise emanating from a small plane that had just taken off from the nearby Middlebury State Airport.
He became even more alarmed when the plane’s engine went silent.
“(The pilot) turned around (toward the landing strip), clipped a tree with his right wing, and went down,” Jerome recalled, the event forever seared in his memory.
“I could see the smoke.”
That’s when Jerome led a charge to the crash site roughly 500 feet away with some other local Good Samaritans, including Wyatt and Tara Ploof of Airport Auto. There they found a demolished, single-engine Piper airplane with a lone, unresponsive occupant: the pilot, Paul Douglas Bessler, 42, of Crown Point, N.Y. The plane door was open and the cockpit was surrounded by flames, which were growing by the second.
“He was laying part way over the passenger seat,” Jerome said, noting Bessler was bleeding profusely.
Jerome, a Salisbury farmer who only four months ago underwent open heart surgery, yelled for a jackknife. The Ploofs got him one, and he cut through Bessler’s seatbelt. Wyatt Ploof and Jerome pulled Bessler out of the cockpit and dragged him a few hundred feet away as flames enveloped the plane wreckage.
That’s when Tara Ploof quickly went to work performing CPR on Bessler, her training kicking in from a previous job. She dutifully performed chest compressions on the crash victim until Middlebury Regional EMS officials arrived on the scene a few minutes later.
“He was not alive when Wyatt pulled him from the plane,” said Tara, who had nonetheless tried as best she good to give Bessler a fighting chance until EMTs could get to the scene.
“I feel really bad for his family.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Bessler did not survive the Dec. 23 crash, and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials on Tuesday were still combing through the plane wreckage to determine the cause of the accident, a process that could take a year to yield a final report, according to Middlebury police Chief Tom Hanley.
Bessler leaves a wife, Keri Cole Bessler, and an 8-year-old daughter, Ava Bessler. His family, in an obituary appearing in this paper, said Paul Bessler “passed away … doing what he loved — flying.” He was a U.S. Air Force veteran with substantial knowledge of planes, and he “loved to talk to and help people,” his obituary reads. A celebration of Bessler’s life is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 4, at 3 p.m. at the Crown Point Fire Department.
“If there is anything I could do to give his family peace, I would do it,” Tara Ploof said in an interview Tuesday. “He wasn’t family and I didn’t know him, but it feels like someone we knew passed away.”
When Jerome took his first look at Bessler inside the plane, he knew the man was likely deceased. But he and Wyatt Ploof were committed to removing him in the face of the spreading fire, knowing the man’s family would want it that way.
“I’m sorry he didn’t live,” Jerome said. “And only two days before Christmas.”
Incredibly, this isn’t the first time Jerome had responded to a plane crash. The first time was 1979, when Jerome witnessed a plane nose-dive into a field in Charlotte. That pilot didn’t survive either.
Last week’s crash occurred at 45 School House Hill Road, on property owned by Louis and Lori Poirier. The couple had left home just 5 minutes prior to the tragic crash, which destroyed a small shed in their yard.
A Middlebury firefighter was able to reach the Poiriers en route, and they immediately returned home to find the ambulance leaving with Bessler’s remains. Firefighters were dutifully extinguishing the blaze.
“It was horrible,” Lori Poirier said of the tragedy. “We saw the tail end of what was going on. I can’t imagine what it was like for the people who came over to help. It must have been terrible.”
NTSB investigators spent the ensuing few days examining the wreckage on-site. On Monday, workers moved the remains of the plane to a vacant storage building near the Middlebury police headquarters off Seymour Street. Hanley said NTSB officials will pour over the plane’s avionics and debris to determine what led to the crash, which was fortuitously taped by Airport Auto’s security camera.
“We are still getting statements from witnesses,” Hanley said on Tuesday.
At this point, investigators believe the plane experienced some sort of mechanical problem just after takeoff. Officials do not believe there was fire on board the plane prior to the crash.
Hanley showered effusive praise upon the Ploofs, Jerome and others who risked their own safety in responding to the crash site in hopes of saving a life.
“The folks out there were terrific,” he said. “These people did an extraordinary job.”
Tara Ploof doesn’t consider herself a hero.
“People were saying, ‘You’re brave,’” Ploof recalled. “I don’t feel brave; I was just doing what anybody would do.”
Indeed, Christmas was bittersweet for folks in the School House Hill Road neighborhood. The rescue effort was highly emotional, and they knew that in Crown Point, a family was mourning rather than celebrating.
“It has been a pretty traumatic past few days,” Ploof said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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