South County resident Renee Johnson was going to meet a friend at Walgreens but was a little early on Dec. 6 and decided to gas up her pickup truck at the BP Gas Station at 110 Long Road in Chesterfield. She had her $14.54 receipt in her hand as she opened the door on the driver’s side.
There was no noise or engine sound, but the next thing she knew, she was hit on the back of the neck by a piece of an awning from the canopy over the pumps. She slid down under the truck for a moment.
“I think I was down on my butt when the explosion happened and I could feel the heat coming under the car,” Johnson said while seated in the McDonald’s restaurant that adjoins the gas station about an hour after the crash. She was being checked by Monarch Fire Protection District firefighters. “I kept thinking this doesn’t make any sense? What is this? What is going on?”
What had happened was that a single-engine airplane crashed into the service station parking lot at about 3 p.m. and exploded in flames, killing the pilot, who was the only person onboard. As of mid-afternoon on Thursday, Dec. 7, Chesterfield police had not released the name of the pilot but various media and other sources identified him as Jim Smith, a prominent real estate developer. Smith played a major role in renovating the Chase Park Plaza hotel in St. Louis. He also was a board member and past president of St. Louis Cathedral Concerts, an organization with which his wife, Fran, sings.
According to a press statement released Dec. 7, the organization dedicated its Christmas concerts on Dec. 9 and 10 to Smith’s memory. “My heart breaks for his wife and family whom he loved with his whole heart,” said Scott Kennebeck, executive director for Saint Louis Cathedral Concerts. “He will be greatly missed by all of us at Cathedral Concerts and I have lost a dear friend and mentor.”
The plane came to rest a few feet away from Johnson’s truck. During its descent, the plane clipped the canopy over the station’s gas pumps and skipped over on its side, coming to a stop along the edge of Long Road, missing a parked 18-wheel fuel tanker by about 50 feet.
Johnson said she got up and immediately motorists and others nearby with fire extinguishers tried to put the fire out and get to the pilot but the fire reignited into a fireball. Johnson said the fuel tanker driver “was calm, cool and collected” and handled the tanker situation well.
Roger N. Herin, the deputy chief and fire marshal for Monarch Fire Protection District, said the plane was totally engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived. Smith was pronounced dead at the scene. Herin said there were no other serious injuries.
Johnson told firefighters that her neck hurt after the accident but declined any treatment. She said she expected soreness later, but was philosophical about it.
“I’m 64 years old. What do you think I’m going to feel like tomorrow? It doesn’t take much at 64,” she said. “We walk every day in the face of God. It wasn’t my time.”
She added, “I’m glad it was me standing there rather than an 80-year-old woman who might have had a heart attack or been seriously injured.”
John Bales, director of aviation for St. Louis County, said the plane was a Beechcraft Bonanza BE36. The flight originated at a small airport near Phoenix, Arizona, instead of Albuquerque, New Mexico as reported by media outlets earlier, he said. He noted that the pilot’s flight plan to Spirit of St. Louis Airport may have activated near Albuquerque and allowed it to be tracked from that point.
On his final approach to the airport, Smith told the tower that he was losing power and he was cleared to land, Bales said. He added that Smith said he “didn’t know if I was going to make it.”
Herin said that often pilots who realize they are in trouble will radio the tower at an airport and first responders, such as firefighters, can stage at a possible location where a plane may come down.
“We didn’t have that opportunity yesterday because it crashed before we knew about it,” he said. “There are a lot of things there that could have been a lot worse.”
The Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] and the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] are involved in investigating the crash. Bales said airport officials met with FAA and NTSB investigators on Dec. 7, who also sent investigators to the scene of the crash. Bales said the plane will be transferred to another location for an extensive and often months-long NTSB investigation. Fatal crashes prompt this level of scrutiny by federal officials, Bales said.
“I don’t know if the pilot directed it that way but he turned off course for final approach. There’s a lot of buildings and everything down here,” Bales said. “He ended up just clipping the canopy at the BP station and ends up in the parking lot.”
Like Herin, he said the only fortunate part was that the accident was not more serious.