One of the victims was identified by the Memphis Commercial Appeal as Wei Chen, an avid flier who became the first Chinese citizen to fly a single-engine airplane around the world. He was the founder and CEO of the Memphis-based company Sunshine Enterprise, Inc., and Mike McAnnally, president of a subsidiary of Chen's company, Stepup Scaffold, confirmed Chen's death to the newspaper. He said he's notified Chen's family.
News of Chen’s death sent shockwaves through Memphis’s business community, where Chen had been a fixture for decades. Chen was a rising star in the city. He’d come to Memphis in the late 1990s, from Changsa City, in China’s Hunan Province, where he was born in 1971. He’d come to Tennessee to attend the University of Memphis where he graduated with a business degree in 1998.
“He came over with nothing in his pocket,” said Tricia Montgomery, a longtime friend of Chen’s and his former publicist.
Chen built a business in his adopted Southern city, Sunshine Enterprise. According to its website, it began as a one-man shop, founded and operated by Chen. Over time, the company expanded to a 400-person enterprise with locations in New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta. It’s unclear whether Chen was on his way back from a business trip in Atlanta at the time of the crash.
His fascination with planes propelled him to pursue a pilot’s license in 2007. With just 250 hours of flying time under his belt he announced he wanted to fly a single engine plane around the world. The plan was an ambitious one because Chen wanted to get permission from the Chinese government to fly through restricted air space with stop in Beijing, said Montgomery.
“If there was something somebody said he couldn’t do, he did it,” she said. “And the thing is, he did (the trip) to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research.”
Montgomery was his publicist for the journey which took 69 days in 2011. Chen later wrote a book about the experience. It's title:"Around the World in 69 Days: What Would You Attempt To Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail?"
“He died doing what he loved,” Shockey said.
The other victims have not been identified, but McAnnally told the Commercial Appeal they were other members of Sunshine Enterprise.
The FAA and NTSB are investigating the crash, which occurred just after the plane took off from Fulton County Airport, Stafford said.
Firefighters arrived at the scene to find the plane’s parts scattered on the park’s football field, creating flames and thick, black smoke.
Crews put out the blaze and soon discovered that “we did not have survivors as a result of this plane crash,” Stafford said.
“The aircraft is basically completely destroyed. It looks like it slid through the field. Not a lot of pieces left.”
According to FAA records, the plane is owned by Chen Aircrafts LLC. Remington said Chen is a “repeat customer” of the Memphis airport and has another plane based there. The aircraft that crashed was based in Atlanta, he said.
“We’re sincerely impacted by this,” Remington said, adding that “our hearts go out to the family members.”
Officials said the plane slid across English Park when it crashed. (Photo: Channel 2 Action News)
Credit: Channel 2 Action News
Credit: Channel 2 Action News
Several hours after the wreck, the mangled plane still sat on the field with its tail largely intact. Several dozen investigators were combing the field for evidence.
The sounds of aircraft flying overhead could be heard hours after the fatal crash.
Leonard Staples was in his home on Bolton Road when he heard a noise that sounded to him like a fallen tree in his backyard. Outside his kitchen window, he saw the wreckage and plumes of orange-colored flames and smoke.
“It scared me real bad,” said Staples, 78.
Staples said he did not see anyone moving at the crash site, which was less than 100 feet from his home.
“He just missed my house,” Staples said of the pilot.
The crash resulted in some damage to a nearby home, Stafford said, but no other injuries were reported.
The plane went down just northeast of Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway between Bolton Road and Fulton Industrial Boulevard, near overhead power lines.
Fulton Industrial Boulevard is shut down at Hollowell Parkway, according to the WSB 24-hour Traffic Center. Bolton Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive are closed, too.
Three people were also killed in a plane crash in Blairsville, 100 miles northeast of Atlanta, on Wednesday evening.
— AJC staff writer Rosalind Bentley contributed to this report