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Small plane crashes off Maryland coast; three feared dead

August 25, 1997

OCEAN CITY, Md. (AP) _ A sightseeing plane crashed a mile off the Maryland coast as horrified beachgoers looked on. The three people aboard were missing.

Divers and search vessels located debris from the shattered biplane but were unable to find any victims after Sunday afternoon’s crash. The search resumed this morning.

``The aircraft obviously was traveling at a good rate of speed,″ said Chief Petty Officer Gary Nestle of the Coast Guard. ``Water, when you hit it with any kind of velocity, is like concrete. She came apart.″

The cause of the crash was not immediately known. Witnesses in this beach town popular with tourists claimed the plane was doing acrobatic maneuvers, police said.

``It’s just a ghastly thing to see something like that happen in front of you,″ a witness, Ed Fritz, told WMAR-TV. ``I couldn’t believe my eyes.″

``Everyone seemed to be watching,″ another witness, John Freeland, said. ``My daughter-in-law was pointing out to my grandchildren (to) watch the airplane″ when it suddenly plunged into the water.

Those on board were identified as pilot John McLaughlin, 44, of Florida, and passengers Crystal Blankinbiller, 25, of Laureldale, Pa., and Judy Lesher, 25, of Fleetwood, Pa.

The plane was an open-cockpit Waco YMF-5 owned by Ocean Aerial, which provides sightseeing rides and flights pulling advertising banners. Company owner Robert Bunting said McLaughlin had worked for him throughout the summer and had only a week left before returning to his full-time job as a pharmacist.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating.

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