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Cirrus plane collides mid-air in Colorado; at least 3 dead; Duluth company sends team to crash site

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Witnesses reported seeing the fireball and a parachute near the intersection of Broadway and U.S. 36. (Photo by Shano Kelley)2 / 2

BOULDER, Colo. -- At least three people are dead after two planes collided in north Boulder Saturday, leaving a debris field several miles wide, said Boulder County sheriff's Commander Rick Brough.

The accident happened around 1:30 p.m. when a plane towing a glider collided with a Cirrus SR20 plane near U.S. 36 and Broadway Street, officials said.

Joan Pallone of Broomfield, Colo., said two of the victims were her brother-in-law, Bob Matthews, and his brother, Mark Matthews. Both were flying in the Cirrus plane.

"I think it was the one with the parachute," she told the News Tribune.

"My sister had just battled from cancer. It's so terrible. ... Both [men] died right near their homes. It's absolutely horrifying."

A Cirrus SR20 is registered to a Robert L. Matthews of Boulder, aviation data bases show.

A woman who answered the phone at Matthews' home said it was not a good time to talk and hung up. Boulder County Coronor Tom Faure said his office has not yet made positive identifications on any of the victims, and the identities of the dead might not be confirmed until early next week.

Cirrus Vice President Bill King told the News Tribune that the company knew about the accident immediately and has a team that will be at the site this morning.

"Our first concern is for the family of the people who are involved in the accident. That's where our thoughts and our prayers are," he said.

"We have an obligation to the authorities. We certainly know what caused the accident," he continued. "Of course, the [National Transportation Safety Board] are the only ones that can comment on the accident itself."

The Schweizer 2-32 glider had freed its rope from the Piper Pawnee, but investigators have conflicting reports on whether that happened before or after the collision, according to National Transportation Safety Board officials. The glider landed safely at the Boulder Municipal Airport.

The Pawnee was destroyed in mid-air; the SR20 was engulfed in flames when it struck the ground, said Jennifer Rodi, who's leading the NTSB investigation.

The glider's pilot has provided a written statement to NTSB investigators. Rodi said advocacy teams are with the pilot and his family; they plan to interview him in the next two days.

The glider had to pass through a fireball immediately after the collision, Rodi said.

Witnesses reported seeing the fireball and a parachute near the intersection of Broadway Street and U.S. 36.

Teresa Fehrenbacher, co-owner of Gateway Fun Park in north Boulder, said one of the planes crashed a quarter-mile away from the park.

"One of our customers was on the mini-golf course and heard a loud boom," she said. "There was smoke coming from the north side of our property."

Fehrenbacher immediately called 911 and authorities showed up within about two minutes, she said.

"When we ran out there, the plane was totally engulfed," she said.

Laurie Carter was driving west on Niwot Road when she saw a fiery piece of debris fall in the Boulder Valley Ranch open space.

"Then we saw what looked like parachuters going down with smoke coming up around them," Carter said.

Another witness, Shano Kelley, was working in his north Boulder jewelry studio when he saw two pieces of debris fall in the open space. He also saw a parachute open, but Kelley said it appeared it was entangled in debris.

Authorities are working multiple wreckage scenes, including an area north of the Gateway Fun Park. Sheriff's officials have yet to find tail numbers from either plane, Brough said.

An official with Mile High Gliding at the Boulder Municipal Airport briefly said before hanging up a phone that one of the company's planes was involved in the crash.

Greg Feith, who was an investigator for the NTSB for more than 20 years and still does air crash investigations around the world, said the aircraft that collided with the plane towing the glider was a Cirrus plane, which is a low-wing, single-engine aircraft with fixed landing gear and the potential to carry four passengers.

Cirrus SR20 planes are known for their incorporation of an airframe parachute that can float the plane and its passengers to the ground in the event of a midair collision. In Saturday's collision, Feith said, the parachute deployed.

After investigators examine the wreckage and crash scene, they will look at possible weather factors that might have played a role in the collision and talk with witnesses and other pilots who were in the air at the time and were sharing the same radio frequency, Feith said.

"The key is trying to track down other pilots on that frequency to see what kind of communication was taking place with each aircraft involved," Feith said. "And the weather always plays a factor, too."

While wind and precipitation didn't play a role, Feith said, there were some low clouds at the time.

"It was murky," he said. "So the question is, 'Did they see each other? And if they did, did they have time to avoid each other?' "

Feith said midair collisions don't always results in fatalities, and some times people get lucky and walk away.

"It's a hit-or-miss thing," he said.

But, Feith said, midair collisions are "rare events."

"And to have a witness as close as the glider pilot is even more rare," he said. "He's going to be a key to this investigation."

The glider pilot should be able to tell authorities how and why the airplanes collided, Feith said.

"And, of course, ground witnesses are always important as well," he said.

Jason Oeltjen, 38, of north Boulder, said he was in his back yard when he heard the "boom" and saw the smoke and flames.

"I saw a parachute falling with a plume of something coming out from the bottom of it," Oeltjen said. "I did see a glider, but by the time I looked up, it wasn't next to the smoke ball."