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The Piper Navajo belonging to Spohrer & Dodd's Aviation LLC went down last week in the Everglades. All three passengers survived, including two attorneys with the firm. Bob Spohrer and Steve Browning had only minor injuries. The pilot suffered broken ...
Jax Daily Record Monday, Nov. 2, 201512:00 PM EST

Attorney recounts how nice day to fly turned into near disaster

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by: David Chapman

The scene below from the clear, blue sky looked chaotic.

A small plane tattered and in pieces downed in the swampy Everglades, perilously close to a canal.

Two men in business-casual attire outside, one on the phone while the other peers into a cockpit housing the trapped pilot.

It was a rescue scene that unfolded for television viewers, live from a news chopper.

It was supposed to be a routine business trip last week for Bob Spohrer and Steve Browning.

The two Spohrer & Dodd shareholders had made the trip many times.

“It was completely normal,” said Browning. “A nice day to fly."

Something happened this time.

Calmness before impact

Spohrer and Browning were in the back of the twin-engine aircraft, working during the two hour or so flight. Completely normal until Browning said he felt the descent and realized it wasn’t Fort Lauderdale.

“There wasn’t an airport,” he said. “And we were landing.”

Browning was sitting in a seat with his back to the cockpit, one of the safer positions in crashes. Spohrer was in the seat facing him and calmly advised Browning to tighten his seatbelt and brace himself. Once they crashed, Spohrer said, they’d go out the emergency window.

Browning has never been in that type of emergency situation before. By the time he realized something was really wrong, they’d hit the ground.

“I was in a little bit of disbelief,” he said.

What came next was a blur, he said. He remembers being outside the plane on the wing, walking, talking, unharmed.

Spohrer also had made it and, besides a gash on his forehead, seemed no worse for wear.

The pilot, however, hadn’t been as fortunate.

Jim Townsend had steered the plane to relative safety — on an embankment away from the canal and a power grid. Either could have been deadly.

The crash had pinned Townsend in the cockpit, breaking his legs.

Spohrer was talking him through it, telling him it was going to be OK.

Browning walked down the road toward a building he saw in the distance, talking to a 911 operator and trying to explain where they were.

Behind him, Browning said he heard a helicopter.

“I guess you found us,” he told the operator.

No. Rescuers hadn’t, but someone else had.

Eye on the skies

It was a typical Monday morning for Juan Rodriguez and his peers at WPLG TV-10, a Fort Lauderdale news station.

Rodriguez said there had been some complaints with the camera equipment. His answer was to test it out in the skies, but once they took off, a radio tower alerted them to the situation.

Plane down. They had to go.

“The first thing we saw was one gentleman with a blue shirt on the wing,” he said.

That was Spohrer.

“We saw another gentleman walking away from the airplane … on the phone with what looked like no injuries,” said Rodriguez.

That was Browning.

What Rodriguez and his crew didn’t see at the scene is what made them change priorities. Emergency help hadn’t arrived.

“We became first responders,” he said. “We have to go. So we went.”

Rodriguez hopped out to help while the helicopter took off to act as a beacon for responders, all the while getting footage.

He saw Spohrer with cuts on his face. The pilot trapped. How close the plane had come to further disaster. Could the thing still catch fire?

“You think 10,000 things in a second,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez went to help Spohrer, advising him not to move the pilot given the possibility of expounding on any injuries. Townsend’s arms were bleeding, his head hurt, he was shouting about leg pain and was asking for water.

“I could see he was in pain,” said Rodriguez, “but I think when he saw a strange face, he was a little relieved.”

Other strange faces soon showed up to help.

From helpers to patients

When Browning looked back at the sound of the helicopter, he realized it wasn’t first responders in the typical sense.

Nonetheless, he said, he won’t forget the station’s “10” emblazoned on its side for quite some time.

Rescuers showed up soon after, he said. Browning went from being a helper to becoming a patient.

At first, responders didn’t think he’d been involved.

“They couldn’t put it together,” said Browning. “I didn’t look like a guy who just got off a crashed plane.”

Although he wasn’t sore — adrenaline, they said — he might be in some discomfort in the coming days.

While rescuers cut Townsend out to escort him to safety, the passengers also had to take a trip to the hospital. They had, after all, just been in a plane crash — and Spohrer had a head injury to be checked out.

Plus, they wanted to be where Townsend was headed.

Hours later, both checked out OK. Spohrer was stitched up. Browning said their phones had been inundated with calls, texts and emails — it all started shortly after the crash when people realized it was them.

Before heading to a hotel for the night, they stopped at a pharmacy to pick up some prescriptions, dirtied and looking like they’d been put through the wringer.

Browning said Spohrer swapped out the paper top the hospital had given him for a generic, touristy T-shirt.

“He pulled it off,” said Browning with a slight laugh.

Browning said he decided against any purchases, but realized how dirty and bloody his clothes were later at the hotel while making many phone calls to family and friends.

That included a call to the acquaintance he was there to visit — the one who called while Browning was on the phone with 911, leaving a joking message about being late. He soon realized why.

After the eventful flight, it was back on a commercial plane to Jacksonville the next day.

Greeted by hugs at home

Browning said he wasn’t nervous in the least when he climbed aboard. He wasn’t sore, yet.

And as Spohrer told Daily Record partner WJXT TV-4, there were no misgivings to climbing aboard.

Other than walking, flying is the safest form of transportation, Spohrer said.

When they returned, both men stopped by the firm that, among other areas, specializes in aircraft accident cases. In fact, the Piper Navajo was registered to an LLC of the firm’s.

They were greeted with “a lot more hugs than I have gotten in a long time,” Browning said.

“They obviously were happy to see me and I was happy to be seen,” he said. “No one got real emotional or anything. … It was a near miss. Those things happen and you move on.”

Much of the attention now turns to Townsend.

Spohrer told WJXT the firm had flown Townsend’s wife and family members to Fort Lauderdale and hoped for a quick recovery. Browning said Friday Townsend had stabilized and “was doing as well as can be expected.”

Spohrer told WJXT it was Townsend’s efforts that led to the three of them surviving. That when you look at the wreckage, it was “pretty incredible” all three survived.

“We’re grateful to be here,” he told the station.

Browning, likewise, offers Townsend praise.

Rodriguez realizes it, too, crediting the pilot for such a landing given the proximity to other dangers.

“It was amazing these guys survived that crash,” said Rodriguez.

(Townsend died from his injuries two days after this story originally appeared in the Daily Record.)

For the attorneys, it’s been work as usual for the most part. Spohrer went out of town to visit family late in the week and couldn’t be reached by the Daily Record.

Browning stayed close and expected to see some of his children come back to town for the annual Florida-Georgia game Saturday.

Initially, they weren’t all planning on making the trip. But, they did.

A “near miss” as Browning calls it, has a way of changing plans.

[email protected]

@writerchapman

(904) 356-2466

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