Two South Florida businessmen died after their twin-engine plane crashed in a residential neighborhood near Chicago Saturday night.
The men were identified as Drago Strahija, 32, of Lake Worth, and pilot Gary Bradford, 37, of Hollywood. The small Piper Aerostar crashed in Sugar Grove, a village 2 miles from the Aurora airport where the plane took off, authorities said.
They had flown in from Texas and spent one night in Aurora before a planned trip to Denver, according to Pam Sullivan, a National Transportation Safety Board spokeswoman.
The men were on a business trip for ENS Corp, a Hollywood-based information technology company owned by Bradford, according to his family.
The plane left the airport at 6:52 p.m., Sullivan said.
Less than 10 minutes later, residents called police to report a ball of fire falling from the sky.
Witnesses, including Sugar Grove Fire Chief Marty Kunkle, reported loud engine noises before the crash.
“I knew it didn’t seem quite right,” said Kunkle, who at first thought the plane had crashed on his own property.
When Kunkle ran outside, he saw a “very large” debris field, with about 10 separate fires burning.
The plane landed in a vacant lot across the street from a community college, witnesses said.
The impact downed power lines and debris hit a house, but the residents were uninjured, local law enforcement said.
Ken Voight, a Sugar Grove resident, said he was sitting down to eat dinner when he heard an airplane flying very low over his home. He said while planes from the airport routinely fly overhead, this plane appeared to have engine problems.
“This one came much lower than normal, really loud engine noise like 1/8the pilot3/8 was really trying to get the engines to go, and then maybe 10 seconds later we heard and felt the impact,” Voight said. “It flew so low over our house that my wife and I both ducked our heads.”
Although Saturday night was foggy in the area, no other flights reported any weather-related problems, Sullivan said. She would not say what might have caused the crash.
Strahija and Bradford had worked together since 2007, according to state records. Strahija was the company’s senior network consultant.
Bradford founded ENS Corp. in 1999, around the same time he started training for his pilot’s license, said his father, Gary Bradford Sr.
“He was a true entrepreneur, built that company up all by himself and became very successful,” the elder Bradford said.
The aircraft was registered to the ENS Corp. Bradford’s father said his son often used the plane for business trips.
He said the men were traveling on business at the time of the crash, but would not provide details.
“We’re grieving, we’re just torn apart right now,” he said.