Laytonsville volunteer deputy chief honored as voice of hope during plane rescue

In his day job, Tom Baker manages 29 county parks for Montgomery Parks. Now he’s being recognized for what he did the night a small plane flew into a transmission tower near Gaithersburg, Maryland, stranding a pilot and passenger for hours.

On Nov. 27, Baker, who is the volunteer deputy fire chief with Laytonsville District Volunteer Fire Department, was giving his children baths when he was alerted to a plane crash, and provided with a location.

Not knowing what to expect, Baker “drove a few miles down the road,” and saw the plane, entangled in live power lines.

Baker parked near the incident’s command vehicle, and reported to Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Chief Scott Goldstein.

“Chief Goldstein tells me to get in the back seat of the command vehicle,” recalled Baker. “He then proceeds to say, ‘Call this number.'”

Within seconds, Baker was talking to the plane’s pilot and passenger.

“We started communicating back and forth on their conditions, and plane information, like the weight of the plane, the year, and confirming the tail number, since that would all be part of the investigation,” said Baker.

For about seven hours, Baker relayed information from the pilot to the incident commanders, maintaining contact through Baker’s cellphone.

“At points he couldn’t see us, and we couldn’t see him, because of the fog,” said Baker.

Emergency responders relied on Baker’s communications to ensure the plane’s occupants were stable.

“Their conditions changed throughout,” said Baker. “Sometimes they seemed like they were confused; they were definitely fatigued.”

With the number of challenges posed by a rescue from a dangerous location, Baker said coordinating entities, including the power company, took time.

Baker said a good portion of his role was reassuring the pilot and passenger: “At some point, I think they weren’t believing that we were coming for them.”

A ladder had been extended toward the plane, but conditions still weren’t safe for the two to be rescued.

“At one point, the pilot wanted to grab his passenger and leave the plane,” said Baker. “So, I convinced them to stay where they were.”

Pilot Patrick Merkle and passenger Janet Williams were safely rescued, and transported to the hospital, on Nov. 28. They have since been discharged and are recovering.

Baker was honored by the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission Thursday for his role in the rescue.

“In all my 27 active years as a volunteer, I have never responded to such a call,” Baker said. “This is, in fact, a once in a lifetime incident.”

Montgomery Parks park manager Tom Baker holds the certificate that honors him for his help with the plane crash. Others in the photo are Director of Parks Mike Riley, Interim Planning Board Commissioners Robert Pinero and Cherri Branson, Interim Planning Board Chair Jeffrey Zyontz and Interim Planning Board Commissioner David Hill. (Courtesy Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission)

Watch the honors for Baker at the meeting. It happens about 59 minutes into the meeting.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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