Finding Their Strength
Three years ago, a private jet crashed into Ken Gemmell's home in Gaithersburg, killing his wife and sons. Gemmell decided he wasn't going to let the tragedy destroy him or his daughter.
Photo by Michael Ventura
Ken Gemmell no longer wears his wedding ring. At some point he started taking it off and putting it back on, eventually leaving it in a bowl on his desk. On May 27, 2016, nearly a year and a half after the accident, he changed his Facebook status to “widower.”
Now that he’s a single dad, Gemmell often goes on Facebook to gut check his parenting: Can the tooth fairy leave an IOU? How often does the Elf on the Shelf really need to be moved? He’s talked about some of his parenting misses, like trying to braid his daughter’s hair and getting her to eat kale.
Gemmell, 39, says he’s had to learn a lot of things he never imagined he would. Like how to cook his wife’s mushroom risotto, and how to get nail polish to look less clumpy. His 10-year-old daughter, Arabelle, jokes that her dad isn’t the best at picking out her clothes, and says he’s had trouble controlling a girls sleepover. (He served pizza and pancakes in the morning.) Gemmell had relied on his wife, Marie, for things like this.
Everyone on Arabelle’s soccer team knows about the accident—that’s how her dad refers to what happened—but no one really talks about it. The soccer field is a place where she doesn’t have to face the tragedy. It’s where her team, the Lynx, finished up another winning season last spring, scoring goals between coming up with new handshakes. It’s where her dad helps call the shots as assistant coach, working from his pink clipboard and jumping up and down along the sidelines to encourage his players. The field is also the place where Arabelle gets a comforting embrace from a teammate’s mother after getting knocked to the ground during the game, an embrace she should be getting from her own mom.
But the accident does come up sometimes, especially when Arabelle is around new friends, so she’s prepared for the question about her mom and brothers. “I usually say, ‘Do you remember the plane crash of 2014?’ ” she explains. “Most often they say they remember that, and I say, ‘Yeah, well that’s me. That happened to me.’ ”
Photos courtesy MyMCMedia
Late in the morning of Dec. 8, 2014, Gemmell was at work at Savi Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, when a co-worker told him that a plane had gone down outside of the Montgomery County Airpark. The Gemmells had lived nearly a mile off the flight path since buying their home on Drop Forge Lane in Gaithersburg in January 2005. He didn’t think there was any reason for concern. Planes don’t crash into houses, Gemmell thought. They crash at the end of a runway or in an abandoned field.
Marie, 36, was home on maternity leave with the couple’s 7-week-old son, Devin, and 3-year-old, Cole. Gemmell tried calling her cellphone to check in, but she didn’t answer. She’s probably busy folding the laundry we left in a pile last night, he remembers thinking. Maybe she took Cole and Devin to the park with their dog, Max, or she’s catching some sleep since she still gets up at night with the baby. He knew that Arabelle, then 7, would have already been at school.
Gemmell’s cellphone rang. The caller, a friend and co-worker of Marie’s, told Gemmell that she had just received an unusual call from his wife. The friend said Marie told her that she had taken herself and the boys to a bathroom; then the phone went silent. Marie didn’t pick up when the friend called back, so she called 911.
That’s when Gemmell began to worry. He started searching online to see if he could find any news about the crash, and saw stories about the chaos happening on his street. He tried Marie again on her cell and on the house phone. OK, so something happened, and she is out helping someone in the neighborhood, he told himself. That was something Marie would do. Just weeks earlier she’d helped organize the second annual Connor Cures Gala & Silent Auction, raising funds for pediatric cancer research. She’d held fundraisers for Hurricane Sandy victims in 2012.
Almost immediately, Gemmell got his first call from a reporter who wanted a comment about the plane crash at his home. He told the reporter that he wasn’t at the scene of the crash, and hung up. He told himself the reporter must have been Googling for people who live on the street, that it couldn’t be his house that was involved in this. Still, he found the co-worker he’d commuted with that morning and left for home, driving about 80 mph. The co-worker provided updates from her phone as Gemmell drove, soon determining that his cul-de-sac was the site of the crash.
Then they saw photos of Gemmell’s four-bedroom home engulfed in flames, a plane’s wing lodged into its side. As they neared his Montgomery Village neighborhood, police and rescue workers had blocked the roads. Gemmell pulled up as far as he could, then walked to the cul-de-sac and told a police officer his name. Fire suppressant foam was everywhere, and bits of an airplane were strewn across his yard and his neighbor’s. Firefighters brought Gemmell to a command center, where he talked them through the layout of his house, gave them a picture of Marie and called his wife’s cell again.
“They said they didn’t find anyone inside, so I’m thinking maybe she is out somewhere, dazed, confused, and they need these pictures to find her,” Gemmell says. He went looking for her in a nearby park, all the while calling her cellphone. He eventually drew investigators a map of the second floor of the home, marking the master bathroom he said they might have missed. He’d just finished making repairs to the shower in that bathroom, at Marie’s request. More than three hours after Gemmell pulled up to his house, investigators found three bodies huddled in that bathtub. Marie had tried to shield the young boys.
Gemmell’s father, then his brother and other relatives rushed to Drop Forge Lane. They wound up at the home of Marie’s aunt, Mary Hilberg, not far from the Montgomery County Airpark, to await word from investigators and Gemmell, who stayed at the scene. Cole’s day care provider, who had also cared for Arabelle, picked her up at school to shield her from hearing any news prematurely.
When Gemmell got definitive word about his wife and sons, he went to Hilberg’s house to tell the family. He took Arabelle into a bedroom to try to explain to a child what the adults around her could not comprehend. “She didn’t understand the concept,” he says. “I told her there was a terrible accident, and got into it enough that she understood they were gone. They were just gone.”
Photos courtesy Ken Gemmell
The temperature in Gaithersburg was below freezing on the morning of Dec. 8, 2014. According to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, the automated weather observing system that reports conditions to pilots showed the need to activate planes’ de-icing systems.
Pilot Michael Rosenberg, 66, was flying an Embraer EMB-500/Phenom 100 airplane from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to the Montgomery County Airpark that morning. Rosenberg, a physician, founded a clinical research company in 1989 called Health Decisions, and had a business meeting at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He was traveling with David Hartman, 52, who worked for a clinical consulting firm, and Chijioke Ogbuca, 31, who worked at Health Decisions.
The Montgomery County Airpark, which opened in 1959 and is used by corporate and personal aircraft, is the only publicly owned airport in Montgomery County. On average, 132 planes take off or land there each day. Rosenberg held a Federal Aviation Administration Airline Transport Pilot certificate, which allowed him to fly the Embraer. FAA records show that in March 2010 he was operating a plane at the Montgomery County Airpark when it ran off the runway. No one was hurt, according to the report, but he had to be retested for his pilot’s license. He passed.
That day in December, Rosenberg would be landing on Runway 14, coming from the north. But as he approached the airport, the private jet went into an aerodynamic stall at an altitude too low to recover from, veered off course and crashed. Rosenberg and his passengers died. In 2016, the NTSB reported that the crash was likely caused by Rosenberg’s failure to de-ice the plane in subfreezing conditions and his low approach speed.
Gemmell sued Rosenberg’s estate for his failure as a pilot, and Embraer, the Brazilian maker of the aircraft. The suit settled out of court last July. The settlement formally ended the legal proceedings of the crash’s aftermath, but it didn’t ease the pain of losing his wife and sons.
When Gemmell proposed to Marie in 2002, she thought it was a joke. They hadn’t explicitly discussed getting married anytime soon, and he had a reputation for being a teaser. He served her breakfast in bed that morning, and then they went to Baltimore for an afternoon Orioles game. After that, they had a picnic under the cherry blossoms in D.C., where he asked her to marry him. Their parents met them for dinner, and Gemmell arranged for friends to meet them at home for a surprise engagement party. “I guess I was pretty confident in a ‘yes,’ ” he says.
Everyone knew it was love, Hilberg says. As a college student, Marie had spent a spring break in Mexico and returned so sick that her mother drove to Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, to check on her. That’s when she first met Gemmell, who’d been looking after her daughter. “Any guy who would do that has got to be the one,” Hilberg says.
Gemmell, a year older than Marie, was studying engineering. She was a radio, TV and film major. They spent time together between student government association work and Theta Chi fraternity and Phi Sigma Sigma sorority mixers. When Gemmell graduated in 2000, he took a job at Hughes Network Systems in Germantown and bought a townhouse in Gaithersburg. On weekends, Marie would sometimes get a ride to Philadelphia from Gemmell’s younger brother, Scott, and then take a train the rest of the way to meet Gemmell. Or she’d ask friends for a lift to Maryland since she had poor vision and didn’t drive. When Marie finished school in 2001, she moved to Gaithersburg and started working at James G. Davis Construction Corp. in Rockville. The couple spent much of their time with friends, often going to happy hours at Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg, and both were members of the Screaming Eagles, a supporters club for D.C. United. They took a couple of years to plan their wedding while they saved money and paid down school debt. Marie wanted a fall wedding, and in September 2004 they married in front of 180 people in Brick Township, New Jersey, her hometown.
Hilberg describes Marie as an easygoing mom. She’d take the kids to restaurants at an early age and laugh off Arabelle’s toddler fits. She’s going to be an “awesome teenager,” Marie would say. Arabelle remembers her mother organizing birthday parties. One time, Marie bought fairy wings for the girls and pirate costumes for the boys. Arabelle looked up to her mom and helped take care of her brothers, reading them bedtime stories such as Team Umizoomi, Cole’s favorite Nickelodeon show. They nicknamed Cole “Dennis the Menace” for his playful ability to cause chaos. At the house on Drop Forge Lane, Cole and Arabelle would carry buckets filled with water from their rain barrels and march behind their parents, watering the family garden. Marie loved the blueberries, strawberries and green beans, and the wildflowers that attracted the pollinating bees.
Marie was always planning things for the family, Gemmell says. Just a few days before the accident, they went to Rockville Town Square to see the tree-lighting ceremony, drink hot chocolate and watch a figure skating show at the ice rink.
Video game and plant photo by Michael Ventura; Arabelle and Scout photo courtesy
The morning after the plane crash, Gemmell woke up and realized he had nothing, not even deodorant. He went to Giant to buy some, and out of habit he asked the cashier how she was doing. “She said, ‘Not too bad, not as bad as what happened to that guy whose house got hit by the plane,’ ” Gemmell says.
“I just looked at her and said, ‘That’s me.’ ” He walked away, not wanting to see her reaction.
Gemmell went back to his cul-de-sac that day, his house still smoldering. As he arrived at the top of the street he saw police guarding the site and reporters covering the aftermath. The house was roped off, now part of an NTSB investigation. Gemmell made his way to the closest police officer and flagged him down to retrieve Arabelle’s car seat, still strapped into the family car that was burned but not destroyed.
“I just stood there, looking,” he says. “I was in shock. Everything Arabelle and I had burned in that house.”
With the help of friends, Gemmell planned a memorial service for Marie and the boys five days after the crash. He wanted the arrangements to be complete before Christmas, for Arabelle’s sake, he says. Nearly 1,000 people gathered for a service at the Church of the Redeemer in Gaithersburg, then at a meeting hall at the Holiday Inn. Friends and family talked about the good times they’d had with the couple—tours of the Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, a MythBusters show at the Warner Theatre for Gemmell’s birthday, watching Denver Broncos games. “I was still coming to grips that they were gone, and the tributes were making that real,” he says. He got through those early days in a fog. “Arabelle didn’t understand. I tried to keep it together, to console her.”
Gemmell went back and forth between his parents’ house in Virginia and Hilberg’s home. Plagued by panic attacks, he didn’t sleep much. On New Year’s Eve he signed a lease for the Gaithersburg townhome that he would eventually buy; Arabelle returned to school at Goshen Elementary after the winter break. “I knew we couldn’t be transients,” he says. “I had to take control of what I could. I had to get back on my own.”
Photo by Michael Ventura
As news of the tragedy spread, hundreds of bags full of girls’ clothing, men’s shoes, toiletries, toys and other items piled up at a half dozen drop-off locations organized by Gemmell’s company, Arabelle’s school, Cole’s day care, First Potomac Realty Trust and other places. Most of the gifts were from local residents, but some came from as far away as Australia. Gemmell says he received more than 1,500 letters and cards from well-wishers all over the world. Those letters are stacked in boxes in the basement of his townhouse, a reminder of the kindness of strangers.
Marie’s former colleagues at Davis Construction used vacant office space on Parklawn Drive in Rockville as a makeshift storage unit. In the roughly 5,000-square-foot room, employees organized donations alphabetically, noting duplicates and keeping an inventory sheet of everything that came in. “It was the only thing that kept many of us moving forward,” says Louise Boulton-Lear, a friend and former co-worker who still has Marie’s number in her phone.
Jenifer Miller, then a server at Dogfish Head Alehouse, launched a GoFundMe campaign that brought in $40,000 within hours. Miller felt lucky to be alive that December day. She had been getting ready to drive from her Silver Spring home to her mother’s house in Gaithersburg when her mom called and told her to wait because there had been an accident nearby. Moments later, both learned through newscasts that a plane had crashed just a few hundred feet from Miller’s mother’s house—close enough that the woman could see the smoke from her back deck. “That could easily have been my family,” says Miller, a 34-year-old mother of five. “That could have been me.”
Struck by the tragedy, Miller decided to try to raise a few thousand dollars to help the family affected by the crash. “It wasn’t until I saw a picture of Marie on the news that it hit me that I knew them,” she says. “I thought, oh my God, that was the family that comes into Dogfish.” She remembered the Gemmells as a sweet young family who treated servers kindly. The last time she’d seen them, Marie was about to have her third child.
The GoFundMe campaign caught the attention of local media, and of Gemmell himself, who called Miller soon after the crash to find out who had started the fund. She assured him that it wasn’t a scam, and Gemmell realized that he knew her from the restaurant. A few months later, Gemmell went into Dogfish and sat in her section, Miller says. (Nearly 10,500 people contributed to the GoFundMe account, which eventually raised more than $500,000.)
Just weeks after the tragedy, Gemmell and Arabelle flew to Denver to attend a Broncos football game at the invitation of someone who’d heard about Gemmell and his love of the team. Then they went back a few weeks later for the playoffs. Gemmell wasn’t worried about flying. He knew the statistical chances of a crash were low, and he wanted to make sure Arabelle didn’t develop an irrational fear of flying. “It wasn’t something to make a big deal out of,” he says. “We had tickets to see our team and we got on the plane.”
On March 7, Gemmell attended a D.C. United game against the Montreal Impact at RFK Stadium. That day, a friend told him that the team was planning to memorialize Marie and the boys during the game to return the support that Gemmell and his wife had long shown as members of the Screaming Eagles. Players wore black armbands, and at the 10:41 mark of the game a moment of silence was held at the stadium in observance of the time in the morning that the crash occurred. A photo of Marie and the boys appeared on stadium screens. Gemmell says the quiet felt surreal, and he left the game feeling like he was part of a family. “It was nice to see I was more than just the sad story,” he says.
Two months after the crash, Gemmell had returned to what was left of the house to meet with an insurance agent. He saw the burn marks from the spray of jet fuel that had blocked his family’s only escape route. He went through the parts of the home that were deemed safe enough. A few computer hard drives that happened to be in the basement survived the fire. They held some of the young family’s photos, including a precious few of the boys. Gemmell recovered yearbooks from Marie’s school days, and discovered that by ripping out certain pages and laminating them he could seal away the charred smell. He also found wine glasses with “Marie and Ken” etched on them, leftover wedding favors. “I still drink out of them when I open a bottle of wine,” Gemmell says.
The home was a complete loss. New building codes and permitting costs drove the price of the rebuild higher than what Gemmell’s insurance company would pay him, so he opted to rebuild the house and sell it to recoup some of his losses. He used some of the $500,000 raised through GoFundMe to cover the costs of the house that would be built on the same foundation.
Gemmell and Arabelle walked through the rebuilt house late that summer. After five months on the market, it sold. Gemmell couldn’t imagine moving forward in a place so tied to what he had lost. The new owners said they could visit, but they haven’t returned.
For the past several months, Gemmell has been seeing someone. When he started dating again, every date felt awkward. Most of his dates knew what had happened, which made him feel like he had two choices: Go deep into the grief and tragedy right after meeting someone, or spend the time dancing around the 500-pound gorilla in the room. With those who didn’t know his history, he always wondered if he was bringing up the crash too soon.
This time, he waited five dates to reveal his story. They’d met through an online dating service. She happens to be a widow with a 5-year-old son. “It’s a tough story to take,” Gemmell says. “She knew my wife passed away, but she didn’t know the whole ordeal.”
Last summer, the two families went to Disney World together and spent a day at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Daigon Alley at Universal Studios Florida. Gemmell has proved to be a good activity planner, Arabelle says, taking her to the Kentlands Oktoberfest, hot-air balloon festivals and the Green Meadows Petting Farm in Urbana. He earned his MBA from the University of Maryland in June, and Arabelle is glad he’ll have more free time to read Harry Potter books with her. She’s in fifth grade now, and has PowerPoint mastered. She’s a member of Girls on the Run and was a leader at her School Safety Patrol Leadership Camp.
Ever since the tragedy, Gemmell has tried to help his daughter see the good that came out of what happened, the way strangers rallied to help them, and to make sure they return the favor. In March 2015, he called Monica Barberis-Young, director of family services for Interfaith Works, a Rockville-based nonprofit that helps meet the needs of the underprivileged in Montgomery County. He told her he wanted to make a large donation. She agreed to meet him at the office space in the Davis Construction building where the donations were stored. How large could it be, she wondered.
Barberis-Young found a room with boxes stacked floor to ceiling, and volunteers sorting piles of clothes, toys and toiletries. Floored, she introduced herself to Gemmell and asked him what this was all about. He pulled her aside to explain. “When he told me, I had no words,” she says. “I just backed into the wall and started crying.” In the fall of 2016, Gemmell took Arabelle to Interfaith Works’ clothing center on Twinbrook Parkway. Barberis-Young gave them a tour of the warehouse, letting the young girl see the piles of clothes, toys and household items that would now help others. “I wanted her to understand there are other people in need, and this is one way we can help them, just like so many people helped us,” Gemmell says.
Three years after the tragedy, Gemmell still goes to grief counseling and is focused on moving forward. Breathing techniques have lessened the grip of his panic attacks. “If I can’t get out of bed, if I let it defeat me, then that accident that took my family would destroy me and take Arabelle down with it,” he says. “After the accident, just getting over the shock and what was happening, I felt I needed to take control of this. I needed to make sure Arabelle and I weren’t victims, too.”
He credits his pragmatic engineering side and Arabelle’s positive disposition for helping to be able to do that. Arabelle attends counseling, too, as well as The Moyer Foundation’s Camp Erin, a weekend program for kids who are grieving the loss of a loved one. The two have found that the anticipation of special days, like the anniversary of the crash, and holidays are worse than the actual day. On Dec. 8, 2016, Gemmell and Arabelle went to Acacia Bistro & Wine Bar in the District. “Delicious beet salad. [Arabelle] wouldn’t eat the beets but oh well, more for me,” Gemmell posted to his Facebook page. He says the two acknowledge the day, but try not to sensationalize it.
Gemmell believes Marie would be proud of them. “I think she would think we did pretty well. I think she would think we are doing pretty well. …I want to make sure I don’t fail her,” he says. “Yes, there have been moments of anger, but never long, drawn-out moments. I am not over it. I will never be over it, but I don’t let it consume me.” Lately they’ve had a good distraction—an energetic boxer named Scout, who has destroyed a few pairs of shoes and some soccer shin guards. Arabelle says the dog is a bit too strong for her to walk alone, so she and her dad go together.
Krista Brick is a journalist who has spent her career in Maryland, beginning on the Eastern Shore, and now lives and works in Montgomery County.