A jet carrying a Chapel Hill businessman and two others crashed on approach to an airport in Gaithersburg, Md., killing all three people on board and three people on the ground.
Authorities have not released the names of those killed in the crash, but Michael J. Rosenberg’s former wife confirmed his death. The plane was registered to one of Rosenberg’s companies, Sage Aviation in Chapel Hill.
Authorities said later that Marie Gemmell, 36, and her two sons, 1-month-old Devon and 3-year-old Cole, perished when the jet slammed into their home.
Rosenberg is the founder and CEO of Health Decisions, a Durham company that helps pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies conduct and analyze clinical trials of experimental drugs. Formed in 1989 after Rosenberg left a job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Decisions had 125 employees at its Durham headquarters as of mid-2013.
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The twin-engine jet was approaching Montgomery County Airpark when it crashed into three houses. Montgomery County officials said the bodies of Gemmell and her two sons were found in the second floor of one of the houses later in the afternoon.
The first 911 call about the crash came in at 10:44 a.m. from a National Guard armory across the street, which reported an explosion and a fire, said Steven Lohr, chief of the Montgomery County Fire Department.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Robert Sumwalt said the plane left a gash in the roof of one house and that the fuselage hit another. One of the plane’s wings became detached and landed in a third house, which exploded in flames.
Sumwalt said the plane’s data and cockpit voice recorders had been found in good shape and would help investigators recreate the flight and its final minutes. Sumwalt said it’s too early to determine what caused the crash.
“Nothing is off the table,” he said. “Everything is on the table at this point.”
Ellen Ruina, Rosenberg’s former wife who lives in Washington, D.C., said the family has been in contact with the NTSB and local police, but said she had very little information.
Rosenberg’s plane left Chapel Hill’s Horace Williams Airport around 9:30 a.m. Monday, airport officials said. Ruina said the flight was a quick business trip to Washington.
Rosenberg also planned to meet his son, Zach Rosenberg, for dinner Monday evening, Ruina said. She wasn’t sure but thought a Health Decisions company official and a contractor might have been on the plane with him.
He was expected to fly back to Chapel Hill later Monday night or early Tuesday morning, she said. Rosenberg, who lived at 331 W. Barbee Chapel Road in Chapel Hill’s Meadowmont community, also has a daughter who lives in Washington.
“It would have been a very typical trip for him,” Ruina said.
Rosenberg has been flying planes since 1975 and has experience piloting both smaller and larger planes, said Ruina, who has flown with him before. He and his son Zach flew together to France last year to pick up the plane, she said.
Rosenberg had crashed at the Montgomery County Airpark once before. In March 2010, he was landing a turbo prop plane when he lost control and came to rest in some trees, according to an NTSB report. He was not seriously injured.
Don Holzworth, executive in residence at the Gillings School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill and a long-time acquaintance of Rosenberg, said Rosenberg once said he planned to quit flying after an accident. But Holzworth didn’t buy it because he knew how much Rosenberg loved to fly.
“He really did enjoy his planes,” Holzworth said.
Holzworth described Rosenberg as “a private person, but extremely intelligent, well-respected,” with both an academic and a business mindset.
“This will shock a lot of people,” he said. “It’s a loss for the business community in the Triangle, for sure. He created a lot of jobs and invested in the community.”
Rosenberg received his medical degree from the University of California at Davis and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University. In a 2011 interview in Menlo Park, Calif., where Rosenberg grew up, he described his decision to start his own business.
“Business is kind of boring, and medicine is kind of boring,” he said. “At the CDC, I started working with drug companies, and I realized there was an opportunity to make drug development more efficient.”
Rosenberg is also an adjunct professor of epidemiology at UNC’s Gillings Global School of Public Health and holds several patents.
John Cline, vice president of client services for Cenduit, a Durham technology company that works with pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations such as Health Decisions, called Rosenberg “a visionary” in the industry.
“He was a pretty interesting guy in the fact that he was an M.D. but also a technologist,” Cline said. “He was always looking for ways to innovate. … He wasn’t afraid of technology.”
The Associated Press contributed.