KEENE, N.H. — The youth group meeting at Hope Chapel on Friday evenings is normally lively, and this week’s session was no exception.
But just as the group was about to start playing a form of dodgeball called Gaga, youth pastor Nathaniel Stiles said some of the youngsters gathered around a window where they watched smoke and shooting flames engulf the four-family residence at the other end of the chapel parking lot.
“We see the red flames and bright skies and the kids go into mass panic,” Stiles said in a phone interview Saturday. “The kids are just deathly afraid and scared and traumatized from what they are seeing 50 feet away from us.”
The terrifying scene unfolding before their eyes was the crash of a single-engine Beechcraft Sierra, which had taken off just before 6:48 p.m. at a municipal airport about a half mile away.
The two people aboard the plane were killed, but no one on the ground — including the eight residents of the four-family apartment building on Main Street struck by the aircraft — were physically harmed, city officials said.
“It’s a miracle and a pure act of God that no one within the church nor any of the residents of the apartment complex walked with any injuries,” Stiles said. “It is a miracle of God’s hands.”
Officials didn’t release the names of the crash victims, but said the aircraft was owned by Monadnock Aviation, a business that operates at Dillant-Hopkins Airport in Keene and offers charter flights, flight instruction, and aircraft rental.
The plane was headed northbound after taking off from the longer of the airport’s two runways, city officials said.
“This is just a very rare and tragic incident,” Keene Mayor George S. Hansel said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon. In a statement, the city said the Keene Police Department notified the victims’ families of their deaths in person Friday evening.
During a news conference Saturday morning, the airport’s director, David Hickling, said he wasn’t aware of any communications between the pilot and the airport before the crash.
Messages left for Monadnock Aviation weren’t returned Saturday and people at its site on the airport grounds declined to comment. Federal Aviation Administration records show there are 71 aircraft based at Dillant-Hopkins Airport, and the overwhelming majority are single-engine planes.
The crash is being investigated by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board, which said Saturday that it was too early to determine what caused it.
NTSB investigating the Oct. 21, crash of a Beech A24R aircraft near Keene, New Hampshire.— NTSB Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) October 22, 2022
A NTSB spokesman said an investigator visited the crash site Saturday to collect evidence, interview witnesses, and seek records for the pilot and aircraft.
A preliminary report on the crash may be available in about 10 business days, but the NTSB generally takes one to two years to complete an investigation and determine the probable cause of a crash, said Keith Holloway, the board spokesman.
“It is important to note that it is very early in the investigation,” Holloway said. “NTSB does not determine cause in the early part of the investigative process.”
The plane’s point of impact at the residence likely saved lives, Hansel said. No one was inside the barn at the rear of the building that was struck by the airplane, he said.
Scott Gauthier, 44, who lives in the building with his 66-year-old mother, said they were home when the plane crashed and the impact nearly knocked him from his seat.
He said he and his mother grabbed a few belongings and ran out of the house, which was overtaken by fire within five minutes. The blaze escalated to a three-alarm fire, which took firefighters about two hours to put out, Hansel said.
“It felt like a bonfire,” said Gauthier, who returned to the residence Saturday to try to retrieve possessions.
“With the planes nearby, there’s always been this irrational fear [of a plane crash],” Gauthier said. “Now, it’s not so irrational.”
He said his landlord paid for him and his mother to stay in a hotel for the time being.
“It’s starting to hit,” Gauthier said. “What do we do?”
Surveillance cameras at Hope Chapel captured the sound and lights of the aircraft’s final moments, giving a sense of the narrow margin that had protected the building from danger, said Joseph Mabe, the pastor.
Breaking glass, an explosion, and screams can be heard in the video, which also recorded some of the first erupting flames.
“I would call it the hand of God in protection,” Mabe said in a phone interview Saturday morning. “It could have gone so much worse.”
His son and a roommate share an apartment in the building struck by the plane, but weren’t home at the time of the crash.
Stiles said the youth group members were escorted from the chapel through the door farthest from the crash scene. He and another adult supervisor then loaded the group into cars and drove them to a parking lot away from the scene to recover from the shock, he said.
The eight youth group members are between 12 and 15 years old, Stiles said.
“They were pretty shaken up,” Mabe said.
Travis Phipps, associate pastor at Hope Chapel, said the church building was not harmed.
“It was clear the Lord was working there,” he said.
The chapel has launched a fund-raising appeal on GoFundMe to assist the residents left homeless by the crash, Mabe said.
A spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of Northern New England said the organization provided residents with financial assistance and other aid.
Keene residents John and Ginnie Dunnell, both 68, biked to the crash site Saturday afternoon. The couple said they live behind the residence that was struck by the plane and were at home with their 8-year-old granddaughter when the crash occurred.
“When you have [a plane] that comes really low, you’re always thinking, ‘Man, I hope that guy knows what he’s doing,’ ” Ginnie Dunnell said. “You know [a crash] can happen, but you never think it’s going to.”
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @lauracrimaldi. Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @tianarochon.