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METHUEN — A former Newburyport mayor was killed Tuesday when his self-built plane plunged into the roof of a condominium complex during an attempted landing at nearby Lawrence Municipal Airport.

Around 1 p.m., the small aircraft crashed into two residential units in the Prides Crossing development, setting off a small fire, authorities said. No one was in the units at the time, and residents in the rest of the building were able to escape safely. Sprinklers in the building helped contain the fire, officials said.

The pilot, Alan Lavender, was killed in the crash, officials said. An avid outdoorsman, Lavender, 73, served as mayor in Newburyport from 2002 to 2003, and was known for his passion for experimental flying and World War II aircraft, friends and colleagues said.

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The Sonex aircraft was making its final approach to the runway when it crashed about a mile from the North Andover airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. On radio broadcasts recorded by liveatc.net, Lavender could be heard talking calmly with the control tower.

Just minutes later, the tower radioed a different pilot, saying, “I just heard the last airplane went down” and asking the second pilot to “make a circle over there and see if you can find out exactly where he is.”

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash, officials said.

Most residents were at work during the crash, but witnesses described a terrifying scene — a deafening crash followed by smoke and falling debris.

Vera Kimball was putting her granddaughter down for a nap when a loud boom rumbled through the building — “the loudest she had ever heard.”

She rushed her granddaughter outside and saw pink insulation falling from above.

“It was awful,” said Kimball, clutching one of her granddaughter’s small stuffed toys as she described the scene. “[The plane] sounded like it was going to explode.”

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Charlene Porter of Stoneham had just driven over for lunch with a friend when the plane crashed just above the porch where they were sitting.

“The whole place shook,” she said. “I can’t believe I didn’t get taken out by it.”

Tony Pappalardo heard the crash from a nearby building. It sounded like a car backfiring, but louder, he said. He ran outside and heard a woman screaming that a plane had crashed into a building. The plane’s tail was smoking as it protruded from the roof, witnesses said.

One emergency caller reported that the plane might have been trying to land in a nearby pond, while another reported that the aircraft was headed straight down, Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni said.

Prides Crossing was also the site of a crash in January 1999, when a single-engine plane flipped in midair shortly after takeoff and skidded to a stop just feet from the development, according to reports from the time.

Zanni said the city would be looking into airport safety.

“We want to make sure the residents are secure,” he said. “We’re going to look at all factors that occurred here.”

Residents in the development have grown accustomed to low-flying planes. Vanessa Barone, who has lived at Prides Crossing for seven years, said she used to make nervous jokes about a plane hitting her home one day.

“I never thought it would actually happen,” she said.

In Newburyport, where Lavender had lived since 1973, the flag in front of City Hall flew at half-staff. Across the street in Brown Square, a lavender scarf had been draped around the neck of a bronze statue of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in quiet tribute.

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Inside, Mayor Donna Holaday recalled Lavender as a Newburyport fixture, a friendly face at countless fund-raisers and community events in retirement.

“He was well known and well respected across the city. Everyone who knew him enjoyed working with him,” she said. “He just had a kind and gentle spirit, very even-keeled. Easy to smile and easy to laugh.”

Residents in the coastal city were in shock, she said.

“We’re all just trying to get our arms around this tragic news and of course support the family,” she said, asking the media to give Lavender’s wife and grown children privacy.

Robert Cronin, a city councilman, described Lavender as someone who always tried to do the right thing.

“He tried to be something to everybody,” he said. “He worked hard, and he worked tirelessly for the community.”

Newburyport City Councilor Charles Tontar recalled a time when his wife had called the city about a dangerous tree. Lavender paid a visit to have a look and a short time later had the tree removed.

“That’s the kind of thing mayors do when they care,” he said.

Lois Honegger, who worked for Lavender when he was mayor, called him “without a doubt one of the gentlest men you’ve ever met in your life.”

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“Just a very sweet, unassuming man,” she said. “He came in as mayor and just really let the department heads and staff do their job. He never micromanaged.”

Honegger, now the city’s arts, tourism, and culture administrator, said Lavender and his wife, Betty, were known across Newburyport for their friendliness and approachability.

“It’s taken a toll on me, it really has,” Honegger said. “He’s such a nice man, he really was.”

Andy Rosen, Martin Finucane, and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Andrew Grant contributed to this report.