Pilot dies in Baker crash

A plane crashed and exploded in a Baker subdivision Friday afternoon shortly after taking off from Baton Rouge Metro Airport, killing the pilot and igniting two homes that were struck by the wreckage, authorities said. No injuries were reported on the ground, authorities said, and no one beside the pilot was aboard the plane.

The victim, John Fowler, 71, of Brookhaven, Miss., was an experienced pilot who worked for businessman Claude Penn, said Alton Ashy, a lobbyist who considered Fowler a friend. Penn — who was not on board — had just purchased the brand new plane from Austin, Texas, Ashy said, and the plane was en route to McComb, Miss., to be stored.

“I had probably flown with John literally hundreds of times,” Ashy said. “He was an excellent pilot and had flown all over the world in every kind of aircraft you can imagine. He was probably one of the most gentle souls you’d ever meet.”

East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Dr. Beau Clark confirmed Fowler is presumed to have been in the crash, but added he has not yet forensically confirmed the victim’s identification.

The crash happened at 1:12 p.m. off Groom Road. The private plane, a King Air 200, clipped the roof of a home on Rue Nicole and crashed into two houses on Rue Jennifer.

“It looks like (the plane) went through a blender,” Baker Police Chief Mike Knaps said.

Beverly Lombard, who lives a short distance from the Rue Jennifer home said she was standing in her garage, preparing to enter her home, when she turned around and saw the plane hit the houses.

“It was unbelievable,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘Is this real?’ ”

Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the pilot reported an unspecified problem shortly before going down.

“The airplane was on departure,” Knudson said, “and the pilot reported a problem prior to the crash.”

The NTSB is investigating the crash and will release a preliminary report within about two weeks, Knudson said.

Knaps said the NTSB planned to return to the crash site Saturday morning to process the scene.

Knaps and East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said a woman was in the damaged home on Rue Nicole, but a Baker police officer, Lt. Chris Becnel, helped her get out of the building without being harmed. The home sustained heavy roof damage and had aviation fuel splashed on its roof and in the backyard, authorities said, but it did not catch fire.

Elizabeth Cory, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, identified the aircraft as a King Air 200.

East Baton Rouge Parish officials along with Baker police and firefighters responded to the crash.

Baker police officer Willie Brooks said he was eating lunch in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart store at the intersection of Plank and Groom roads when he saw a small, white private plane flying west of the store.

“The wings were going up and down,” Brooks said. “I looked in the direction of the airport and said, ‘He’s not trying to land.’ ”

After a few seconds, Brooks said, the plane disappeared, and then he saw white smoke. He radioed what he had seen to Baker police headquarters and drove to the vicinity, finding the two homes in flames.

Reginald Grant, who lives at the corner of Rue Jennifer and Chemin Street, said he was working in his yard when he saw a plane come over some trees, bank to the left, straighten up and make a hard left into the houses.

A young couple with two kids lived in one of the damaged home, which had a charred baby crib amid the wreckage, authorities said.

The other home belonged to Michael Smith, a pastor at New Covenant Christian Center in Baker, whose sister, Tasha, was still at the house only minutes before the plane slammed into it.

By chance, Michael had called his sister to come up to the church to see him about five minutes before the crash, he said.

“I don’t know if it was intuition or what,” Smith said, adding he had been there about 15 minutes before the crash to pick up his niece and take her to basketball practice.

Smith had moved out of the house about a week ago and was in the process of selling it to his sister. But he said he still had a garage full of furniture and other belongings stored at the residence, which is now destroyed.

The house was the first Smith had bought in Louisiana, which he was proud of. He called it the “family home,” where family members would gather for holidays and special occasions.

“We had things there that we’ll never be able to get back,” Smith said. “We have to start our life all over.”

But on Friday, he was mainly glad no one was home during the crash.

“We’re just thankful for life today,” he said.

Advocate staff writer Steven Ward contributed to this report.