Pilot had ties to racing industry; passenger was his girlfriend

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 3, 2012

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Divers recovered the body late Saturday morning of Steve Bown from the underwater wreckage of his Cessna 350 plane, which crashed Friday afternoon into High Rock Lake.
The recovery came at 11:42 a.m. when divers Pete Ressa and Chris Moroch located Bown’s body in the plane’s fuselage 27 feet underwater and brought it back to the surface.
Karyn Martin also died in the Friday crash. Her body was recovered from the lake about an hour after the plane went down.
Bown, 51, was president of Performance Springs Inc. of New Hudson, Mich. The company, which produces valve springs for engines, has strong ties to the racing industry, including NASCAR.
“He had been here (in Davidson County) on racing business,” Rowan County Fire Marshal Tom Murphy said.
Murphy had no background information or age for Martin. A cousin of Bown’s told the Post she was the businessman’s girlfriend.
Both bodies were to be transported to the N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office in Chapel Hill.
The four-seat Cessna Columbia 350 took off from the Davidson County airport about 1:15 p.m. Friday, heading for Florida, and was in the air just minutes before crashing. The 25-foot-long plane has a wingspan of just more than 36 feet and a fixed landing gear.
The couple apparently had flown from Commerce Township, Mich., the day before and spent the night in Davidson County so Bown could conduct business.
A February Popular Mechanics article credited Performance Springs with producing the steel spring that revolutioned NASCAR by providing engines with increased power. The spring’s job is to keep an engine valve closed.
Performance Springs was founded in 1996, and Bown was lead engineer besides being the company president. The firm also provided springs for racing teams in IRL and NHRA Pro Stock.
The divers found Bown’s body on their first dive into the water, and the recovery was made in roughly 12 minutes.
Rescue teams and divers had prepared for a long day, assembling at Tamarac Marina in Rowan County before boats went out to the marked crash site.
The plane went down in a wide part of the lake near Cow Island without ever issuing any kind of distress call.
Ressa, a Davie County Rescue Squad diver with 23 years of experience, credited the rescue operation’s organization for helping with the quick recovery of the body after heavy fog curtailed the search late Friday afternoon.
“What we do, we do for the families,” Ressa said. “It’s a necessary thing.”
Moroch said the divers simply followed a fundamental rule: “You plan your dive, and you dive your plan.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, which did not yet have representatives on site, was to guide efforts to salvage the plane.
Ressa reported that “a very large part of the plane is intact.” He and Moroch, an independent diver out of Statesville, said they felt a main part of the fuselage, one wing and a horizontal stabilizer during their dive.
Visibility in the lake water was “zero,” Ressa said. Water temperature was 41 degrees.
Divers from Rowan County, Thomasville, Fair Grove Fire Department, Davie County and Davidson County were assembled and ready to go Saturday.
Liberty Fire Department personnel provided men and equipment throughout the day, and the American Red Cross again served food for the recovery participants.
Murphy said Saturday’s primary mission was to find Bown’s body.
Authorities here confirmed the couple’s identities at midnight Friday through the Michigan State Police.
Rowan Emergency Services Director Frank Thomason and Rowan Rescue Squad Chief Coyt Karriker addressed the various rescue teams before boats departed from Tamarac Marina for the crash site.
The Rowan Sheriff’s Office cordoned off a parking lot section with police tape so the marina could keep operating Saturday. The crush of media and curious people coming by hampered the marina’s business Friday afternoon.
Boats belonging to the Rowan Sheriff’s Office and Alcoa Power Generating Inc. took the first group of divers to the buoys marking the underwater wreckage.
John Weddington of the Rowan Rescue Squad and Mike McNeil of the Davie Rescue Squad supervised the recovery operations. McNeil, a scuba instructor, served as a safety officer and line tender for Ressa and Moroch — the first dive team in Saturday.
“They both did excellent,” said McNeil, a former Salisbury fireman. “It was good to have someone I knew in the water.”
The divers did everything by feel because of the zero visibility. McNeil said part of their scuba training is done with black masks to simulate those kinds of conditions.
Ressa said it was the second time in his diving career that he worked on a plane accident.
The divers’ activity released to the surface some aviation fuel or oil from the wrecked plane.
Aviation officials will try to determine the cause of the crash by putting back together pieces of the plane that have been or will be recovered.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.