NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — It was a misty midwinter day, perhaps the only real quiet time in an area that attracts 14 million visitors a year, when the whining drone of an aircraft engine could be heard low over the trees.
Multiple explosions then shook the Briarcliffe RV Resort as the single-engine plane clipped a tree, smashed into a camping trailer, and destroyed a car nearby.
The midday accident Tuesday killed a Massachusetts pilot and a woman from New Hampshire on the ground in a trailer.
“It was so low, we knew something desperate was going to happen,’’ said Doreen Boorman, 74, of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, one of thousands of so-called snowbirds who flock to the Carolina coast each year to escape Northern winters.
“It sounded like a NASCAR car, and then, in a split second . . .’’ said Carson Hackney, 72, of French Lick, Ind. The pilot was identified as Kenneth Thode, 62, of Plymouth, who authorities said was practicing takeoffs and landings at an airport about a mile away. The woman was identified as Eva Sullivan, 70, of Sunapee, N.H.
Both Thode and Sullivan were snowbirds. Friends said Sullivan was an expert quilter whose arrived earlier this month with her husband, Thomas, who suffered burns and was hospitalized.
Thode had a vacation home in the area and sometimes flew his plane, a 2004 single-engine Cessna, from Plymouth to South Carolina, said Bill Leppert, a local flight instructor who flew with Thode in the past.
“He was practicing approaches, and everything seemed to be fine,’’ Leppert said. “He had his pilot’s license for at least four or five years.’’
The Sullivans were inside their trailer at the time.
After the plane hit, all was confusion in the park where trailers and RVs sit on concrete slabs near live oak and cypress trees.
“There were two explosions,’’ said Boorman’s husband, Roy. “The truck behind it exploded, and the plane exploded.’’
“There were three explosions, and you couldn’t get close to it,’’ said Michael Norrell, 48, a retiree from Winston-Salem, N.C., who is also staying at Briarcliffe.
“There were four explosions,’’ Hackney said. “Two bottles of gas from the camper over there blew.’’
Jeff Brackett, 66, of Raleigh, N.C., was on a computer in his RV about 20 yards away when the plane crashed.
“I heard this loud rumbling, which I thought was a muffler,’’ he said. “The next thing I know, I heard a boom, then I ran out like everyone else. My instinct was to go see about the pilot, but I couldn’t get any closer because of the billowing black smoke and the heat.’’
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are expected to be on the scene for several days.
On Wednesday, they sifted through twisted metal and shreds of yellow insulation while the plane engine was being hoisted by a crane. Nearby, other debris remained snagged in a live oak.
It was the second time in a year someone has died on the ground in a plane crash in South Carolina.
A man was struck and killed last March on Hilton Head Island as a plane tried to make an emergency landing on the beach.
Three people, a North Carolina couple and their granddaughter, died last summer in North Myrtle Beach when their plane crashed into a mobile home park, slightly injuring two people on the ground.
While RV park guests were stunned by the accident Tuesday, most plan to return to the park.
“The Good Lord was looking out for a lot of people here,’’ said Hackney, adding that the damage could have been much worse if the plane slid through a larger section of the park.