Four people have died after two aircraft collided over Lake Hartridge in Winter Haven, Florida, on March 7, law enforcement officials said.
Speaking at a press briefing on Tuesday, Polk County Chief of Staff Steve Lester said police received a phone call about two planes that were involved in an “in-air collision” over the lake at around 2:04 p.m. local time.
The Polk County chief of staff said one of the planes was a Piper J-3 Cub seaplane operated by Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, and the other was a Cherokee Piper 161 fixed-wing plane operated by Sunrise Aviation on behalf of Polk State College.
After arriving on scene, police found one of the planes was partially submerged in the lake and another 21 feet underwater, Lester said. Multiple agencies, including Winter Haven Police, Winter Haven Fire, and Polk County Fire Rescue, assisted in the search for the victims, he said.
“It happened above this lake and it was an in-air collision, both planes immediately went to the ground, to the water,” Lester said, noting that the lake is located just behind the airport.
The Polk County official could not provide further details regarding what caused the crash, citing the ongoing investigation.
He added that the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the incident, while local police are interviewing witnesses.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office identified the victims as Faith Irene Baker, 24, a pilot and flight instructor with Sunrise Aviation; Zachary Jean Mace, 19, a student at Polk State College, and Randall Elbert Crawford, 67, from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as three of the people who died in the collision.
Deputies are working to confirm the identity of a fourth deceased person, officials said.
All four of the located individuals were the only occupants of the two planes, according to the sheriff’s office, and law enforcement teams are no longer conducting a search and rescue operation but a recovery operation, they said.
Baker and Mace were in a Cherokee Piper 161, while Crawford and the fourth victim were in a Piper J-3 Cub, according to the sheriff’s office.
“My heart goes out to the families and friends of those who were killed in today’s crash. The NTSB and FAA will be investigating the cause and circumstances of the collision,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said in a statement. “Please keep the families in your prayers during this difficult and stressful time.”
‘Devastated by This Tragedy’
Shortly after three of the four victims were identified, Polk State College said in a statement that it was mourning the loss of student pilot Mace and flight instructor Baker.
“Our Polk State College family is devastated by this tragedy,” Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti said. “We extend our deepest condolences to their families, friends, and colleagues.”
Falconetti added that the college is providing support to students on its campuses, by phone, and through a virtual assistance program.
Winter Haven Police also called on members of the public to avoid boating in Lake Hartridge as law enforcement officials continue to probe the area.
“Recovery efforts of the downed aircraft continue and with the late hour of the evening, it continues to be challenging,” police said. “Additionally, we ask for citizens to please refrain from going to the Lake Hartridge Boat Ramp to include the Lake Hartridge Nature Park due to the increased law enforcement activity.”