Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Steve Miller, technical adviser to the National Transportation Safety Board looks for pieces of debris from a Cessna aircraft in the Southern Trace neighborhood in Lawrenceville on Saturday. Miller crouches next to the front steps leading to a house that was totally demolished where a burnt vehicle now sits due to the impact and resulting fire. Two people were killed in the incident.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Investigators have released the names of two people killed Friday afternoon when a small, twin-engine airplane crashed into a Lawrenceville home.
James Wardlaw, 58, of Atlanta, was the pilot of the Cessna 310 that slammed into the Southern Trace subdivision residence just after 1 p.m. He was alone on the five-passenger plane, headed for Sparta, Tenn.
The crash and explosion killed Wardlaw and 62-year-old Judith Kirchner, who lived there.
Gwinnett Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said Kirchner was downstairs when the plane crashed into the garage, exploding and causing a blaze that quickly consumed the entire house.
Saturday afternoon, the charred lot sat inside caution tape as cleanup crews and investigators worked.
Piles of burnt rubble sitting on scorched earth were the only indication that the large, two-story house had ever been there. Cinged leaves atop tall trees hinted at the magnitude of the fire.
Next door to the home, a tree showed evidence of being clipped by the plane just before it slammed into Kirchner's garage. It was the only evidence, in fact, outside the yellow tape that suggested anything out of the ordinary had happened in the upscale neighborhood.
Investigator Butch Wilson of the National Transportation Safety Board said he has a "good idea" what caused the plane -- which descended at an estimated 200 knots (more than 230 mph) -- to go down, but that any official word would have to come from his superiors in Washington. That could take some time, he said, since he has to prepare and submit a report for their review.
"There's other things ... more radar information, maintenance information and maintenance records (to look over)," Wilson said, "that will solidify my thoughts on what happened."
Wilson did say that the overcast skies could have played a role.
Witnesses said the plane was in a steep turn -- "almost a 90-degree roll," Wilson said -- and Wilson speculated that Wardlaw may have been trying to turn the plane back toward Briscoe Field.
No distress calls were ever made, according to reports.
As investigators were wrapping up their day Saturday, they weren't yet half finished sifting through what is left of 2329 Walker Drive and the aircraft that destroyed it.
They will continue their investigation at 8 a.m. today, when Wilson said officials will sift through more wreckage, identify it and actually begin examining it for answers.
As pieces of his home were being picked up and inspected Saturday, Norman Kirchner was somewhere picking up the pieces of his life that was turned upside down in an instant.
Norman, not yet ready to share his story with the media, was also inside the house when it exploded. He told officials he was in an upstairs bedroom, working on the computer, when he felt the walls vibrate a split second before he heard the boom.
"He said he got up and went into the hallway to go downstairs but was met with thick smoke and a tremendously hot fire," Rutledge said. "He couldn't see anything but was able to feel his way down the stairs and exit the front doors, which had been blown out."
In all the chaos, Norman remembered his wife was still inside the burning house.
"He tried to go back in for her," Rutledge said, "but he just couldn't."