OCEAN CITY — A small plane crashed into the ocean about a quarter mile off the 130th Street beach last Sunday afternoon, claiming the lives of two Ocean City Police officers, one a veteran and avid aviator who was piloting the aircraft and another who just joined the force full time last year.
Sometime between 3:30 and 3:45 p.m., the Nanchang CJ-6A aircraft, owned and piloted by veteran OCPD officer Tom Geoghegan, Jr., 43, of Ocean City, and his passenger, OCPD Officer Joshua Adickes, 27, of Berlin, took off from the Ocean City Municipal Airport in West Ocean City. The plane moved up along the coast out over the water heading north until about 4 p.m., when something went terribly wrong.
According to witnesses at the scene, the plane appeared to go into a downward spiral in the area of 130th Street and crashed into the ocean on its belly, sinking immediately. The crash was witnessed by hundreds on the beach on a crowded Sunday afternoon in late June. According to witnesses, the plane was flying at a high altitude before moving into some sort of aerobatic maneuver, but it remains uncertain late this week if the plane was attempting a stunt or if it experienced technical problems, or perhaps both.
At some point, the plane continued to plummet at an incredible speed, according to witnesses, and crashed into the ocean, followed by a loud boom. Kurt Dawson, a former OCBP lifeguard and pilot and flight instructor, who was on the beach at 130th Street on Sunday afternoon, said this week he instinctively looked up and realized quickly the aircraft was in trouble.
“As a flight instructor, every time I hear a plane I naturally look up,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was in a spin and I kept watching as they descended thinking they were going to pull out of it. When it got to around 500 feet, I realized they weren’t going to make it. About three seconds later, the plane crashed into the ocean and it sounded like a cannon going off.”
Dawson said he wasn’t certain if the plane was experiencing engine or mechanical trouble or if the aircraft was attempting a miscalculated maneuver.
“I didn’t know if I could hear the engine or not at the time,” he said. “Thinking back on the whole thing, it definitely sounded like it was out.”
When the plane crashed into the ocean, Dawson then abandoned his flight instructor and pilot hat, and reached for his OCBP lifeguard hat.
“I used to be a lifeguard and sat on 130th Street for five years,” he said. “I immediately grabbed the keys for the Beach Patrol shed on 130th Street from the guard on the stand and got the rescue board out. I also grabbed the flags to mark the area so we could close it off. The sergeant paddled out, but there was nothing to see and no rescues to be made.”
The irony of witnessing a plane crash just off the coast of the beach where he worked as a lifeguard for five years was not lost on Dawson.
“As a pilot and flight instructor, as much as I have been around airports and air shows, I always expected to see a crash at some point,” he said. “I never thought I’d see it right out in front of my home beach.”
First on the scene of the crash was the “Sea Rocket,” a popular red, white and blue speed boat with the familiar rooster tail plume of water trailing out the back, which was out in the ocean full of passengers on a Sunday afternoon cruise. Captain Graham Bostic said he saw the plane overhead and to his right before it went into the fateful spin and crashed into the ocean. Bostic said he recognized Geoghegan’s familiar Nanchang plane because he had seen it in the past.
“We all saw the plane go down,” he said. “It was off our right front side and then it seemed like it was directly over our heads. I saw the plane spinning at about 1,000 feet and I thought it was one of those stunt planes from the air show, but then I realized I had seen that particular plane often out over the ocean.”
Bostic said the plane appeared to stall at its apex and then descend quickly in a spin before crashing into the sea.
“It was spinning and seemed unstable, then it went into what seemed like one of those stall maneuvers you see those pilots do sometimes,” he said. “I was waiting for it to pull out of it, but it never did. About 500 yards from the boat, it crashed on its belly like a belly flop and sank instantly.”
As a boat captain and veteran Coast Guard officer, Bostic said he knew what he had to do next.
“We dashed over to the scene and the first thing I did was mark the position and call the Coast Guard and 911,” he said. “I was in the Coast Guard for 20 years and that’s what I do.”
Bostic said the “Sea Rocket” and its crew and passengers were prepared to do whatever they could once on the scene, but it soon became apparent it was not a rescue mission, but an attempt to assist with the recovery.
“We dashed to the scene with the intent of making a rescue, but nothing came up,” he said. “My first mate, Samuel Coates, was ready to jump in the water and do whatever he had to do to help the victims, but nothing ever came up. There was virtually no debris.”
Instead, the “Sea Rocket” waited near the crash site for help to arrive in what became a silent vigil.
“I told the passengers we were going to sit there until help arrived,” he said. “We all just sat there kind of in stunned silence. There was a lot of support from the passengers because they realized this is what we have to do. Everybody wanted to help or do something, but everybody just sat there. There was really nothing for us to do other than mark the spot where it went down.”
Passengers Chris Esposito and Michele Hersh of Red Hill, Pa. saluted to Bostic and his crew for their efforts.
“It gives us great sadness to find out about the loss of these two police officers. Believe me when we circled to make the turn at 130th Street for our trip back, every passenger, including the captain, were ready to pull any survivors aboard. In fact every passenger aboard that ship made it very clear we did not want lto eave the scene in case someone managed to surface. Hats off to the captain and our deepest regrets to families of these fallen police officers,” Esposito said.
When the crash occurred, OCBP officers immediately swam out to the site from the beach. The Coast Guard responded, as did personnel from the OCPD, the Maryland State Police and Maryland Natural Resources Police. The MSP regional state police helicopter Trooper 4 also responded and conducted an aerial search. With no debris on the surface and no apparent survivors, the collective mission quickly became recovery.
Maryland State Police Underwater Recovery Team divers located the debris field by Sunday evening, but the search was suspended around 9. Darkness, a dangerous current and high waves created hazardous conditions that led to the decision to suspend the search on Sunday night.
Recovery efforts began anew early Monday morning about a quarter mile off the coast at 130th Street, as family members and friends, police officers and others gathered under makeshift tents and canopies on the beach to keep vigil. At daybreak on Monday, a Coast Guard vessel and three smaller boats were moored over the crash site as the effort began to recover the two victims.
Again, choppy seas and poor conditions curtailed the recovery efforts, which would have taken just a couple hours earlier in the day, dragged into mid-morning and the afternoon. MSP and NRP divers worked throughout the morning and early afternoon to recover the victims from the wreckage in about 30 feet of water and around a quarter mile offshore. The divers were working in conditions of zero visibility and dangerous currents, but were able to recover Geoghegan and Adickes around 1:15 p.m. on Monday.
With the victims removed from the crashed plane and identified, there was some measure of closure on Monday, but the grim chore of raising the wreckage was left for another day, particularly with stormy conditions and rough seas prevailing. On Wednesday morning, MSP divers were headed back out to the crash site with Captain Greg Hall and Tow Boat U.S. of Ocean City to craft a plan to raise the plane and transport it by barge to the commercial harbor in West Ocean City. Hall said on Wednesday the divers would not necessarily be seeing the wreckage on the bottom as much as feeling it because of the continued rough and murky conditions.
Hall said when a window of better conditions presented itself, the chore of raising the plane would be undertaken, likely sometime Thursday or Friday. From there, the plane will be transported by truck to an undisclosed location where National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials will begin their investigation into what went wrong.