CLEARWATER — An overnight spring break trip from Chicago to Clearwater that ended with a deadly crash early Saturday was not the first flight Jeffrey Bronken took with his teenage daughter, Katherine.
A photo on social media sites dated March 21, 2013, shows the 53-year-old father and his 15-year-old, Katherine Bronken, in the cockpit of his single-engine Piper PA-28 almost exactly one year ago.
On Saturday, the pilot reported some kind of fuel-related problem to air traffic controllers shortly before his plane nose-dived into a median on McMullen Booth Road near Union Street, about seven miles north of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, investigators say.
The normally busy, six-lane stretch between Enterprise Road and Sunset Point Road was empty when the plane hit the ground at 4 a.m. — one stroke of good fortune in an otherwise tragic accident.
Federal investigators still are trying to pinpoint the exact cause of the crash, which killed Jeffrey Bronken and injured his daughter and her friend, Keyana Linbo, both 15.
The teens were being treated at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. An update on their condition wasn't available Saturday night.
All three are from Round Lake, Ill., about 50 miles north of Chicago.
Shocked family members, in interviews with local media, described Bronken as a devoted father.
In postings earlier this month on Twitter, Katherine Bronken, who goes by Katie, said she never had seen a person, “live life to the fullest as much as my dad does.”
She wrote days before the flight: “last minute quick trips are honestly so common in the Bronken household.”
This weekend's trip began at about 6:30 p.m. Friday when Bronken took off from an airport in the Chicago area.
In the early morning hours the next day, people living along McMullen Booth Road were jolted awake by the sound of the aircraft hitting an electrical wire and smashing into ground.
“I just heard a big boom and then everything went black,” said Judy Costa, whose home is just east of where the crash happened on McMullen Booth Road near the Cypress Trace South neighborhood.
Costa assumed it was a transformer blowing out, but other residents came outside to see the white-red airplane sticking up out of a narrow median, its nose crumpled into the ground up to its wings, surrounded by debris and small fires.
Pinellas County sheriff's deputies in the area also heard the sound and responded with fire departments from Clearwater, Safety Harbor and Dunedin as numerous 911 calls came in, said Sgt. David DiSano of the sheriff's office.
The crash had killed Jeffrey Bronken, but emergency crews quickly transported the two girls across Tampa Bay to St. Joseph's, he said.
There were few vehicles on the stretch of road between Union Street and Enterprise Road at the time of the crash.
“Obviously, this is an unfortunate incident. I guess one fortunate part of the incident is it happened at four o'clock in the morning, so there was very little if any traffic on the roadway and fortunately nobody was injured,” DiSano said.
The sheriff's office blocked traffic Saturday at Enterprise Road and Sunset Point Road as investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board combed through the wreckage for clues.
Crews with Duke Energy also were on the scene working to restore power to some 450 customers in adjacent neighborhoods.
The plane frayed an electrical line suspended across the roadway on its way to the ground.
Investigators haven't completed a review of air traffic control recordings from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, but Bronken apparently made mention of a fuel emergency before the crash, said Bob Gretz, a senior air safety investigator with the NTSB.
“The pilot made some statement to air traffic control regarding fuel, either a fuel emergency or low fuel, something about a fuel problem,” Gretz said.
The wreckage was removed from the road late Saturday and transported to a facility in Groveland, where the investigation will continue, Gretz said.
There are many questions remaining to be answered in the coming days as the NTSB prepares its preliminary report.
The model of Bronken's plane should have enough fuel for a four to five hour flight, Gretz said, but everything from the specific route he took to wind conditions along the way could affect its range.
More than nine hours went by between the time Bronken reportedly left the Chicago area and the time of the crash and investigators are looking into whether he made any stops along the way.
An initial report is expected within a week. A final analysis of the accident could take up to a year.
FAA records show Jeffrey Bronken got his private pilot certificate in 2007.
The 1980 plane is registered to Glass Man Inc. in Highland Park, Ill., a glass contracting business Bronken owns, according to online business listings.
Family members in the Chicago area told local media Bronken was an experienced pilot and devoted father.
“He adored his children. He was everyone's favorite uncle,” his sister-in-law, Deirdre Manna, told the Chicago Tribune.
“He was so much fun and always on the go,”' she said.
The Bronken family experienced another tragedy a few years ago.
In 2009, Bronken's 20-year-old daughter, Christine, died after a snowmobile accident, according to a web posting at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, where she was attending school.
Her obituary mentions a brother, Tommy Bronken, and mother Susan Bronken.