NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are working to figure out what caused a small plane to crash Monday afternoon, taking the life of its pilot.
Paul Vidal, 74, of Westport, died after his Cessna 150 plummeted nose-first into Rural Cemetery around 3:30 p.m.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says the crash happened shortly after Vidal took off from New Bedford Regional Airport. Several eyewitnesses captured the plane flying low on video, and some said they could hear it throttling before it crashed.
“We were in our driveway and it came over our house and it made a roll or flip and then it went sideways and it did a nosedive,” recalled Margie Carreiro, who lives near the cemetery.
NTSB Air Safety Investigator Lynn Spencer said the plane was in the air for about 40-45 minutes before the crash. While witnesses reported seeing the plane “doing acrobatics,” Spencer stopped short of confirming it was intentional, adding that they still don’t know what caused the plane to crash.
Spencer said witnesses told investigators Vidal was “cheerful and happy to be flying” prior to taking off from the airport, saying he spent 10-15 minutes pre-flighting before takeoff.
Police remained at the cemetery throughout the night to guard the crash site. On Tuesday, members of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division were seen walking the scene and surveying the area with a drone.
Vidal was the only person on board the plane during the crash. He had been a licensed pilot since 2001 and his wife Carol Ann Vidal said flying was one of his favorite hobbies, among many.
“He enjoyed everything,” she said. “He loved astronomy, he loved flying, he just got involved in everything. We had a good life, just… it’s over… pick up the pieces. It’s hard. He’s not coming home.”
Carol Ann said her husband told her if there was ever an emergency during a flight, he would seek to cause minimal damage.
“He crashed in the graveyard to avoid houses,” she said. “I remember him saying that he’d always do that if he had to come down, to not hurt anybody. He was a good pilot.”
Spencer said at this point they can’t determine if Vidal chose to crash into the cemetery.
“I couldn’t say if he picked this area or if he ended up where he ended up,” she said.
Carreiro and other area residents are commending Vidal for managing to land away from people and homes.
“I think it was a very brave and smart thing for him to do,” Carreiro said.
“I feel like he’s a hero because he thought of everybody else,” Griselta Ramos said. “Knowing he’s losing his life but he’s thinking about the houses that were close and kids playing around and he did what he could.”
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell released a statement expressing his condolences to the Vidal family.
“Mr. Vidal was a well-known and respected member of Greater New Bedford’s recreational aviation community for many years, where his loss is being felt today,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell also said he is thankful the crash “did not result in a much larger disaster.”
“Despite its name, Rural Cemetery sits in the middle of the city, surrounded by densely populated neighborhoods where thousands of residents live,” Mitchell said. “It is readily imaginable that under slightly different circumstances the crash could have taken lives on the ground.”