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After plane crash, Groton family finds blessings

Groton — Nine months to the day after a small plane crashed into Kenneth Johnson’s Ring Drive home, he moved Monday into a new blue, ranch-style house, with a red door, built on the slab of his prior home.

While the house is brand new and a new beginning for him, it already felt like home to the 50-year resident of Ring Drive.

“It always felt like home to me because I’ve been in this neighborhood so long,” Johnson said as he stood outside the house on the sunny May morning. “Even though we designed it different, it still feels like home.”

On the night of Aug. 17, 2020, a twin-engine Piper PA-34 plane crashed into the roof of Johnson’s home while he was sleeping, and he survived “without a scrape,” his daughter Tammy de la Cruz said. Johnson initially thought there was a burglar when he heard the noise and opened his door to see debris and a collapsed ceiling. He smelled the fuel and was able to leave the house through a window, but was not aware until later what had happened. The two people on board the plane were taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, and both survived.

The plane had been performing “touch and go” landings at Runway 23 at Groton-New London Airport on the night of Aug. 17. While flying in a traffic pattern for the runway, the instructor heard the engine was sputtering and determined there was a malfunction in the right engine, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Tammy de la Cruz said the plane came through the house near where her father had been sitting an hour earlier. He had been watching the Democratic National Convention, but he started to feel a little tired and decided to go to bed early.

“Normally he would have sat there and watched that, but for some reason he went to bed,” she said.

De la Cruz, who initially thought that her father could have lost his life as she witnessed a plane sticking out of her childhood home, said it was a really emotional day — but she thinks about what a miracle it is that all three people survived. With the plane having engine problems, she said, whatever the pilot did that night “was a miracle because no one died."

“I keep calling it the miracle on Ring Drive,” she said.

After the crash, De la Cruz, who lost her son, Joey Gingerella, to gun violence in 2016, decided to reach out to the mother of the pilot to let her know how happy she was that the pilot and pilot in training survived. The two mothers spent an hour on the phone in a tear-filled conversation.

“I was so happy for that family that their lives were spared,” de la Cruz said. “It was a miracle, and not only that, it was such a blessing.”

She also spoke to the mother of the pilot in training, and the families went to breakfast together and formed a close bond, exchanging Christmas presents and keeping in touch. De la Cruz, who has always had a fear of flying, even went flying with the pilot, who gave her a wind chime with Joey Gingerella’s name and birthdate that said “to our guardian angel.”

De la Cruz said that through another tragedy her son "somehow has managed to bring light out of a bad situation so it’s amazing.” 

De la Cruz recalled how when she went to the house after the plane was removed, there was a strong smell of fuel and left-behind pieces of the plane, and she glimpsed a small white piece of paper. When she picked it up, she saw it wasn’t a paper, but a photo of her son, Joey Gingerella.

The family also was able to salvage items, such as angel statues belonging to her mother, who died in 2012, and photo albums. The garage door from the original house also was recovered and is now a part of the new home. The original house was demolished and the new house was rebuilt on the original slab, de la Cruz said.

De la Cruz also is bringing in decorative accents of the lighthouses her mother loved and the sunflowers of her home state of Kansas to honor her mother in the new home.

De la Cruz said another silver lining was that her father got to spend time with his daughter and son-in-law and great-grandson during the pandemic. After the plane crash, Johnson moved in with his daughter and son-in-law, state Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton.

Though now back in his home, Johnson expects the family will be over often.

“We’ve been though a lot as a family,” Tammy de la Cruz said. “It just keeps bringing us closer.”

k.drelich@theday.com

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