Pilot dies when plane hits temple on Walton Way

A small plane crashed into the side of a Jewish temple off Walton Way just before 7 p.m. Wednesday, destroying the aircraft and killing the pilot.

"It just glided right into the side of the building," said Vallirie D. Hooper, who was on her way to choir practice at Trinity-on-the-Hill United Methodist Church. "It was hard to tell if the engines were working. It was a flash and a flame."

Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the crash occurred at 6:55 p.m., and that the plane had left Charleston, S.C., and was headed to Cartersville, Ga. Mr. Knudson said the pilot had reported an engine problem to air traffic control before crashing.

The plane, a two-seat, fixed-wing single-engine Piper, is registered to VPC Air Inc. in Cartersville, according to the Federal Aviation Administration's online registry.

What appeared to be wreckage lay on the west side of Congregation Children of Israel Temple at 3005 Walton Way, and the roof on that side appeared damaged.

Fire trucks and deputies blocked off Walton Way as curious neighbors gathered amid the blur of flashing lights.

Rabbi Robert Klensin was giving a speech at Covenant Presbyterian Church when he learned a plane had hit the temple. All he could think about was the dozen or so members of the congregation who were at the temple cooking.

Fortunately, no one inside was hurt, Rabbi Klensin said.

"It's very sad for the pilot who was killed and his family, but it is also a blessing no one else was hurt," he said.

Rabbi Klensin said he thinks it's possible the pilot was trying to make an emergency landing. From the air, the only spot not covered with homes and trees is the school parking lot just west of the temple.

"Maybe in the last seconds of life he was looking out for other people," Rabbi Klensin said. No one on Walton Way was hurt.

The season of Hanukkah, which began Tuesday, is a time to count blessings; one is the making of miracles. Looking from across the street at the west side of the temple, Rabbi Klensin said, "Look. He even missed both of the telephone poles."

Barrett Lane resident Nancy Foss, whose home is nearby, said the crash made the strangest sound and rattled her windows.

"At first I thought it was a transformer, then I heard a bang. Then there was a crunch."

Rabbi Klensin said it doesn't appear the temple sustained any structure damage. The fire and heat melted some of the roof overhang on the west side of the building.

Mr. Knudson said NTSB investigator Jill Andrews would likely be headed to the scene today to begin an on-scene investigation. He said that phase of the investigation would likely last three to five days, but a determination of cause in a plane crash typically takes as long as one year.

Staff Writer Timothy Cox contributed to this article.

Reach Tom Corwin and Sandy Hodson at (706) 724-0851.