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After Virginia private plane crash, father mourns the ‘end’ of his family



John Rumpel and his wife were on their way to see a waterfall when the phone rang from an unknown number. It was the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency, Rumpel said, had been trying to reach the man piloting his private plane, but no one could get through. The caller asked Rumpel if he knew another way to contact the plane.

At first, Rumpel, 75, paid little mind to the call. A former pilot himself, he knew that radio systems sometimes glitch. Plus, he was still in a good mood from the four days he had spent relaxing with his daughter and 2½-year-old granddaughter, whom he tried to convince to call him “Grandpa,” though she insisted on “Pop Pop.” He had dropped them off at the airport 90 minutes earlier, sending them back home to East Hampton, N.Y., in his plane with a hug and a kiss.

About an hour later, the phone rang again. It was the FAA, this time with news. His plane had gone down. Rumpel felt like his heart was going to come out of his chest.

Amid the rubble, he learned after praying all night, police found body parts.

Authorities said it was the remains of all four people on board.

The Cessna Citation and its pilot were supposed to carry Rumpel’s daughter, granddaughter and their nanny to their home in East Hampton. Instead, an hour after taking off from Elizabethton, Tenn., the plane turned around and headed back toward Washington, for reasons officials are still investigating. After authorities could not reach anyone inside, fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the plane — causing a sonic boom that reverberated across the D.C. area. The plane went down near Montebello, Va., a few hours after Rumpel bid farewell to his daughter, Adina Azarian, and his granddaughter, Aria Azarian. Authorities said there were no survivors.


“That’s the end of my family,” Rumpel said, his voice breaking. “It’s just my wife and I now.”

What causes a sonic boom, and is it harmful?

On Monday, National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived at the scene of the crash, beginning what officials said will be a days-long process of sifting through “highly fragmented” wreckage to determine what happened inside the plane. Authorities have released little about the nature of the incident, though Rumpel said police told him the plane may have crashed after losing pressurization, which might have caused those inside to lose consciousness.

Two people familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, said the pilot of a military jet that scrambled to intercept the plane saw its pilot sitting in the left seat slumped over to the right.

Rumpel identified the pilot as Jeff Hefner. Records show he had an airline pilot rating that qualified him to fly Boeing 737 jets, among other aircraft, and had a top-level medical certificate as recently as October. Authorities have not released the name of the nanny.

Rumpel said he had never had any issues with the Cessna Citation plane — which he used last month to fly from his home in Florida to a second home in the mountains of North Carolina — or with the pilot, who had been flying his planes on and off for more than five years. He said that one of his other planes recently had a problem with pressurization, but that a pilot caught it on a test flight and sent it in for maintenance.

For Rumpel, who retired from flying 30 years ago, the purpose of the small planes was to bring his family together. That had been a chief priority in his life ever since he lost his first daughter, Victoria, in a scuba diving accident when she was 19 years old.


Years later, Rumpel said he met a woman who reminded him exactly of his daughter. It was Azarian, a real estate agent in New York. After they got to know her, Rumpel and his wife decided to adopt her when she was 40 years old.

“They had the same fire in their bellies, and they were loving, caring children,” Rumpel said of Victoria and Azarian, 49. “We had no one else, and we loved her.”

Rumpel said Azarian wanted nothing more than to be a mom herself, and he watched her go through a years-long in vitro fertilization process to become pregnant with her daughter. He described Azarian as the best mother he had ever seen.

Photos on Azarian’s Facebook show her and Aria in matching dresses, kissing on the lips and dressed up together on Mother’s Day. In Facebook posts, friends described her as a “beloved part of the NY real estate community” and a “devoted mother.”

After the first FAA call, Rumpel said, he returned home and received more calls from the transportation agency, but he could not recall exactly what authorities told him. He said his mind wandered to how his family had been talking about inputting a system that allowed passengers to text and call from the air. It had seemed expensive at the time.

He pulled up a flight map on his computer, he said, and saw her flight take a mysterious turn in New York. He said his worry intensified, knowing that the plane did not have enough fuel to make it back.

Jeff Guzzetti, a former FAA and NTSB investigator, said flight-tracking data suggests that the pilot was not in control of the private jet long before it reached New York.


That afternoon, as he sat in his home in the mountains of North Carolina, Rumpel said, he turned on the news and heard people talking about the sonic boom. He said his heart rate quickened, as he realized from his years of experience as a pilot that the sound could be related to his plane.

Some time later, he said, authorities confirmed it had crashed.

Rumpel said he spent all night praying that his family had miraculously survived. He thought mostly of Aria, who he knew was strapped into a car seat.

He thought she had the best chance.

Over the weekend, he had watched Aria play hide-and-seek and take interest in a number of art projects. He had seen her decide to draw exclusively in red and yellow after she had taken particular liking to a red gumball in a gumball machine.

He had worn a homemade shirt that read “Pop Pop.”

Ian Duncan and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.


Source: Washington Post

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