Plane goes missing with 3 from Kiski Valley aboard

Liz Hayes
| Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011

Rescuers continued to search Monday for three Kiski Valley residents who were aboard a small plane that dropped off the radar Sunday night in a remote, mountainous region of West Virginia.

A family member confirmed Michael Fiori Garrone, 52, of Allegheny Township was piloting the Piper PA-32R plane that was last heard from just before 9 p.m. Sunday when it issued a distress call near the border with Virginia.

Also aboard were Chas Armitage Jr., 52, of Parks Township, and his girlfriend, Laura Stettmier, 49, with whom Armitage shared a home, according to their families.

All three are local business leaders: Garrone operates a contracting company, Armitage is president of Uncle Charley's sausage company in Parks, and Stettmier is the co-owner of the Addison House Restaurant and Lounge in Leechburg.

The group was on their way back to Pennsylvania after a weekend trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., according to Stettmier's sister, Lydia Baines of Georgia.

Baines said she didn't learn the plane was missing until Monday afternoon. She believes Stettmier's son, George Stettmier, 21, of Tarentum, was heading to West Virginia.

"I'm here in Georgia -- I don't know what to do now," Baines said. "I feel so useless."

"The family doesn't know much right now," said Francine Garrone of West Leechburg, Michael Garrone's daughter-in-law and a former reporter for the Valley News Dispatch. "But we remain hopeful."

Charles Armitage, Chas Armitage's father and the founder of Uncle Charley's, said his son is good friends with the Garrone family. Armitage also didn't know much about what befell the plane.

"No one seems to know what happened," Armitage said. "The plane just disappeared."

The plane was flying to Johnstown from an airport in Danville, Va., when Garrone indicated to air-traffic controllers he wanted to return to the south-central Virginian airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the airport's owner.

The group had stopped in Danville about 7 p.m. to drop off the pilot's wife, Kathi Garrone, who planned to stay in the area for a few days on business, Mike Rembold, owner of the Danville airport General Aviation, told the Danville Register & Bee newspaper.

Rembold said Kathi Garrone urged the group to stay overnight in Danville because poor weather was predicted along the flight path, but the group flew out about a half-hour later.

The National Weather Service in Pittsburgh reported the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia experienced weather similar to the Alle-Kiski Valley's on Sunday -- cloudy with showers.

Garrone was flying a 1977 Piper PA-32R-300 single-engine, fixed-wing plane with either six or seven seats. The plane was registered to Wings R Us Inc. at Garrone's home address; it was recertified in August, according to the FAA.

After requesting permission to return to Danville, Garrone then indicated he planned to land at the Grant County Airport in Petersburg, W. Va., according to Jimmy Gianato, director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The plane never arrived at the airport, which is about 100 miles south of Johnstown near the West Virginia border with Virginia.

Col. Rodney Moore, spokesman for the Civil Air Patrol in West Virginia, said the plane was in radio and radar contact until it was about 12 miles south of the Petersburg airport.

"At that point, radar contact was lost," Moore said.

Emergency responders in Hardy County, which neighbors Grant County to the east, began searching for the plane Sunday night but were called off when initial coordinates indicated the plane was elsewhere, according to Tammy Gilhuys, deputy director of emergency management in Hardy County.

The search resumed on Monday morning when new coordinates indicated the plane's last known location was near the rural community of Brake in Hardy County. Brake is located in a valley along the South Branch of the Potomac River amid mountains that top 2,000 feet. The area is just northeast of the Monongahela National Forest.

Moore said rain and fog were hindering the search yesterday.

One search squadron from the Eastern Panhandle already was on the ground yesterday afternoon and two more teams from Morgantown and Clarksburg were en route, he said. They hoped to begin an air search late yesterday if weather conditions and visibility improved.

"It's always difficult in the mountains when the leaves are still on," Moore said. "But we do have a good starting point."

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