DANGER ON THE GROUND

Close calls put public at risk

Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue personnel work the scene of a DC-3 cargo plane crash near Northeast 18th Avenue and 56th Street in Fort Lauderdale in June 2005. The plane crashed a few miles from the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport on a residential street.

Across the country, cargo planes have crashed on golf courses, by an electric plant, in a lake at the foot of high-rise condos, in driveways and in the middle of bustling residential communities.

On a freezing, snowy Wednesday three weeks before Christmas 2002, a 1974 Cessna 210L came down on a northern Arkansas neighborhood just before dinnertime.

"I ran outside, and pieces of airplane were falling down all around the house," said Danny Saunier, a fiberglass assembler who was sitting in his living room when he heard the boom. "The entire wing fell into a tree in my neighbor's backyard, maybe 50 feet from me. . You could smell the airline fuel all over. The pilot's headset, it was right beside my house."

Somehow, a larger tragedy was averted that day in Harrison, about 140 miles upstate from Little Rock, when the pilot crashed while carrying canceled checks and other bank documents for Orlando-based Flight Express Inc.

"If it would have been in the afternoon or when school was out, there would have been kids all over the place outside," Saunier said. "It's just fortunate at the time no one was outside. Three houses down, one of the seats of the plane landed on the roof."

Air cargo's alarming history of near misses -- and with it potentially larger death tolls -- was documented in a Miami Herald review of every fatal U.S. cargo crash since 2000.

Nearly one of every five involved planes coming down near homes, business centers or people, the newspaper found. Many others fell on approach to runways, meaning they, too, could have caused death on the ground had they veered before crashing.

A cargo plane can do extensive damage. Some carry hazardous materials.

In 2003, Emery Worldwide Airlines was fined $6 million after pleading guilty in Ohio to 12 counts of failing to provide written notice to its flight crews that it carried hazardous cargo in 1998 and 1999.

The materials on board: explosives, radioactive materials and flammable gas and liquid. Pilots in command had no clue the hazards were on board as they traveled state to state, the government said.

In South Carolina and Ohio in 2002, other companies were fined for trying to ship flammable liquids and corrosives, the packages halted only when ground handling employees discovered leaking boxes.

| Reporting by Ronnie Greene | Photography by Candace Barbot | Audio Editing by Rhonda Victor Sibilia | Online Production by Stephanie Rosenblatt | (c) Miami Herald July 9, 2006 |