Close neighborhood mourns wife lost in plane crash

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Rich Cassidy's palatial home overlooks a scorched parcel of land piled with blackened timber and the rusty, twisted wreckage of two late-model Lexuses, an apocalyptic sliver amid half-million dollar estates. It's the kind of thing that's hard to ignore.

Cassidy's longtime neighbor and friend, retired banking executive Judy Kirchner, 62, died amid a towering inferno across the street Friday afternoon. Her husband, Norman, and beloved mixed-breed dog, Bella, escaped the flames.

The Kirchners' home was a mirror image of Cassidy's, he said. It was incinerated in minutes by a small, twin-engine plane that swooped through the neighborhood, loaded with at least 60 gallons of fuel, and barreled into the garage at more than 200 mph, officials said.

"I was kind of hoping it would get (my house) -- there was nobody home," said Cassidy, who'd known the couple since they migrated from Indiana a decade or so prior. "It's a sick way of thinking, but with nobody home ..."

Neighbors in the tight-knit Southern Trace subdivision were still trying to come to grips with the tragic randomness of the situation Monday, as a backdrop of recovery experts and heavy machinery collected what little remained of the Cessna 310. Several residents had lost phone, cable and gas utilities after the impact, Cassidy said.

"Everybody's doing all they can to help each other," Cassidy said.

The on-scene portion of the investigation wrapped Monday, but a clear-cut answer as to what caused pilot Dr. James Wardlaw, 58, a Tennessee optometrist, to crash could be six months in the making, lead investigator Butch Wilson of the National Transportation Safety Board said.

Investigators must collect aircraft records, radar information and pilot data such as flight logs before an official determination can be made by NTSB authorities in Washington, D.C., Wilson said.

All debris from the plane will be stored at Atlanta Air Recovery in Griffin before being turned over to an insurance company. Wilson couldn't estimate what percentage of the 1965 aircraft was recovered. The plane was registered to KMAviation LLC in Meridian, Idaho, and had no black box, he said.

"We didn't get anywhere near all of the airplane," Wilson said.

Wardlaw, who was married, was en route to Sparta, Tenn., to visit his six daughters. In total, he had eight children and three grandchildren, Wilson said.

Records show Wardlaw last fueled the 100-gallon plane with 60.4 gallons on Oct. 25 but hadn't flown since he left Friday from Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville. The angle of Wardlaw's flight path suggests he was turning in the general direction of the airport, but his intentions remain unclear, Wilson said.

It's still too early to determine if cloudy, drizzly conditions were a factor, Wilson said. No distress calls were made.

As for Kirchner, Cassidy described her as a gentle, careful soul who cared deeply for her husband, who works in the information technology field, he said.

"She didn't even like to go out of the house to drive," Cassidy said. "She had a brand-new Lexus, two years old, must of had a couple hundred miles on it. She didn't like to be out on the streets, wasn't safe. That's the ironic thing about it."

The couple have a grown daughter, Erin Mule, of Lovettsville, Va., who's staying with her father in the area, Cassidy said. A funeral for Judith Kirchner is scheduled for Thursday morning in Lawrenceville.

Family members described her as an avid animal lover, devoted to bird watching and training Bella to be "a therapy dog for the elderly at nursing homes," they wrote in an obituary.