Vernon man recalls plane's final moments before Marshall Field crash
Ronald Cameron knows he’s lucky.
Had he not turned his head to the right while enjoying a break from a bike ride on a concrete bench at Marshall Field, Cameron might have been an on-the-ground victim of Saturday afternoon’s plane crash that killed pilot James Langley, 59, of Kelowna, and his passenger, Karim Makalai, 53, of Port Moody. Makalai is believed to be Langley’s brother-in-law.
The pair were killed after Langley’s twin engine Piper PA-23 aircraft crashed into the popular Okanagan Landing soccer field, which neighbours Vernon Airport, shortly after takeoff, just after 1 p.m. The craft nearly hit the VantageOne Soccer Centre, at Marshall Field.
“The planes are flying out every 10-to-15-minutes and they all have different sounds, you can hear them If it’s quiet and if you don’t hear them anymore, they’ve gone,” said Cameron, 60, who rode his bike from his downtown Vernon apartment to Okanagan Lake and had stopped at Marshall Field on his way home for a break.
He was just about to head home after nearly a 45-minute rest.
“This one, I didn’t see it as much as I heard it. It was really loud because it was so close. It got my attention.
“I looked to the right and it was coming right towards me, I don’t know, about 100 feet away and off the ground. I just froze. Then, after a couple of seconds, I ran into the soccer fields. Seconds later, it crashed.”
Langley’s plane clipped a tree, hit the very bench Cameron had been sitting on, and burst into flames.
Cameron said the plane “didn’t sound right, like it was sputtering,” and estimates if the pilot had any sort of control, he would have landed the aircraft on the “acres and acres of soccer grass.”
“It was listing to the left really bad,” said Cameron, who retired to Vernon six months ago after a 40-year career in Regina as a precast concrete employee. “To me, when it hit some little trees, it started on fire even before it hit the concrete bench. It looked like it was already on fire, but I don’t really know. I was running straight west into the soccer fields.”
Those soccer fields, from mid-April to mid-June, are full of young soccer players, coaches, officials, parents, relatives and friends at 1 p.m. every Saturday.
There had been a jamboree for players aged six and under just two weeks before.
With Marshall Field being void of soccer activity Saturday, Cameron decided to stop there instead of at a bench at Kin Beach on Okanagan Lake for his rest.
He said about 15-to-20 minutes before the crash, people had been coming in and out of the indoor soccer centre.
Cameron said he had trouble sleeping Saturday night, but was doing OK.
“I’m just lucky and fortunate,” he said softly. “There was nothing I could have done. I almost wanted to get on my bike and get out of there. You know there’s at least one person in the plane, but it was in flames.
“I feel bad about the fatalities.”
He was taken care of at the field Saturday by “a nice police officer,” who explained that his bike – knocked some distance from where it had been parked as a result of the plane’s impact – would have to be left there as evidence. The officer returned the bike, which needs some repairs, to Cameron Sunday night.
“It’s not severely damaged but I can’t even think about that, not with two people dead,” he said.
The B.C. Coroners Service, with the assistance of the RCMP and the Transportation Safety Board, is continuing to investigate the accident, which occurred after the plane stopped in Vernon for fuel.
“We know lots of what happened, when the aircraft took off, what direction, etc., but we don’t draw any conclusions from that until a thorough analysis is done,” said Bill Yearwood, regional manager for the TSB. “I have been to the site and examined the wreckage preliminarily, and I’m sharing that information with the other investigators.”