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Victims of Connecticut plane crash identified, vigil held in remembrance

Plane Into House_Cham.jpg

August 10, 2013: Joann Mitchell, the mother of one of the crash victims, hugs East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo, during a vigil in East Haven, Conn. (AP Photo)

Authorities have identified the four people who were killed when a plane crashed into two Connecticut homes Friday. 

East Haven Police formally confirmed that the the pilot of the small, propeller-driven plane was 54-year-old former Microsoft executive Bill Henningsgaard. Henningsgaard was flying with his 17-year-old son Maxwell, who also died in the crash. Sade Brantley, 13, and 1-year-old Madisyn Mitchell, who lived in one of the East Haven homes hit by the plane, were killed as well. 

Henningsgaard's brother Blair, the city attorney in Astoria, Ore., said Bill Henningsgaard and his son were traveling the East Coast to visit colleges, and Connecticut was part of the itinerary. Blair Henningsgaard said the family learned it was Bill Henningsgaard's plane through the tail number.

On Saturday night, dozens of people turned out for a vigil at Margaret Tucker Park to honor those who died in the crash. Among those in attendance was 39-year-old Joann Mitchell, the mother of the 13-year-old and the 1-year-old. Mitchell, who did not speak at the vigil, was home at the time of the crash, but managed to escape. 

The Hartford Courant reported that Mitchell posted the following message on her Facebook page: ""My heart is at a standstill. The feeling of emptiness engulfs me. Mommy will always love you … R.I.P. my sweet angels."

East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo told the crowd at the vigil that the show of support was a great tribute.

"I think this is a great tribute to a great town," the mayor said, "a caring town, a loving town. A town that comes out when things are down and people need you."

Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a statement that the vigil was a "profound statement of the ties that bind East Haven and our entire state together as one community."

"When a family suffers an unimaginable tragedy, we come together and pray that they have the strength they need to carry on," Malloy said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with all the families tonight who are suffering from grief and loss."

Investigators say they've found no obvious signs there was anything wrong with the plane. Federal safety investigator Patrick Murray said at a news conference Saturday in New Haven that he would have a preliminary report within 10 days but it would be months before a final determination is made of the cause of Friday's accident.

He said the plane landed upside down at an angle on two East Haven homes as the pilot was apparently turning to land at Tweed New Haven Airport in rainy weather.

Neighbor David Esposito said he heard a loud noise and then a thump. "No engine noise, nothing," he said.

He also said he heard Mitchell screaming that her children were inside the burning home. He said he ran into the upstairs of the house, where Mitchell believed her children were, but they could not find them. They returned downstairs to search, but he dragged the woman out when the flames became too strong.

Frank Diglio, 55, told the Courant that he was driving nearby and pulled over when he saw people screaming and crying. Diglio said he and another man tried digging through the room to find the children, but were forced to leave after 10 minutes when the fire at the house became too intense.

"The plane was burning slow and then it started really burning," he told the newspaper. "The fire engines arrived in like 10 minutes. They came real quick and they told us all to move. The house got really out of control."

Tweed's airport manager, Lori Hoffman-Soares, said the pilot had been in communication with air traffic control and did not issue any distress calls.

"All we know is that it missed the approach and continued on. There were no distress calls as far as we know," she said.

Another neighbor, Pablo Arenas, said he and his neighbors live in fear of the planes. He said some pilots appear to be novices in training, while others said planes often fly low and larger aircraft have begun using the airport in recent years.

It wasn't Henningsgaard's first crash. In April 2009, Henningsgaard was flying a small plane from Astoria to Seattle when the engine quit and he tried to glide back to the airport. 

As he wrote 10 days later on a blog post, the plane crashed into the Columbia River after a harrowing five-minute descent. He and his mother, a former Astoria mayor, climbed out on a wing and were rescued.

Henningsgaard spent 14 years at Microsoft in various marketing and sales positions, according to his biography on Social Venture Partners website. The foundation extended its condolences to his wife and two daughters Saturday. 

"There are hundreds of people that have a story about Bill -- when he went the extra mile, when he knew just the right thing to say, how he would never give up. He was truly all-in for this community, heart, mind and soul," the foundation posted Friday on its website.

Henningsgaard was a longtime board member at Youth Eastside Services, a Bellevue, Wash.-based agency that provides counseling and substance-abuse treatment, and led the organization's $10.7 million fundraising campaign for its new headquarters, which opened in 2008.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Click for more from CTNow.com.

Click for more from The Hartford Courant

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