Coach affected after seeing crash

Published 10:57 pm Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rodney Dixon expected a difficult day when he returned to work at John Essex High School on Tuesday. Only three days removed from having been the first on the scene of the plane crash that killed Forkland’s Mark E. Keeley, Dixon anticipated struggling with his focus and wondered if he could devote himself entirely to his students.

“I kind of thought I could’ve done more that day,” Dixon said of his role in Friday’s events.

That role began to take shape shortly after 1:40 p.m. Friday when the JEHS coach and teacher received word that a small plane had crashed outside of the school. Upon hearing of the incident, Dixon rushed to the scene. The plane’s remains lay just beyond the visitors stands of the football stadium located behind the school.

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“I jumped over the fence, me and another one of my students,” Dixon said, recounting the events of the day. Dixon moved in closer to the plane in an effort to assess whether or not the burning wreckage of the small aircraft contained a passenger. It was then that he first saw Keeley.

“It seemed like the body had burned pretty bad,” Dixon said. “I couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not.”

At that point, Dixon explained, the focus of he and his students was set squarely on combatting the fire.

“The kids started bringing me fire extinguishers. We fought it for a while, trying to get the fire out,” Dixon said of the efforts put forth by him and many of his freshman students. “We kept fighting it until the fire department came.”

After fighting the flames for several minutes, Dixon said he became aware that the likelihood of Keeley’s survival was minimal.

“It made me have a better perspective on family,” Dixon said. “I went home immediately after school to see my family, and stayed with them all weekend.”

Marengo County Schools superintendent Luke Hallmark said Monday went on as a normal school day, without incident with respect to the crash that claimed a Forkland man’s life Friday afternoon.

“There were a few kids looking out the window, students that I think saw it headed down,” he said. “That’s a lot to have on your mind for anybody, even more so if you’re a K-through-12 student.”

After taking Monday off in an effort to recover from the emotional shock, Dixon continued to feel less than ready for his Tuesday return. However, Dixon relayed, a surprise visit from Keeley’s family, who traveled from Baltimore, Md., helped to underscore his part in the tragedy.

“They were up in spirits more than I would have thought,” Dixon said of the family’s outlook.

“Meeting them after trying to save him, that was big. Seeing how they were and how they took it; that was a good experience. When I saw them, it made it a good day. It helped to bring me back to where I needed to be.”

Dixon said he and many of his students who took part in the effort to save Keeley would attend his funeral service Wednesday at 10 a.m.

Demopolis Municipal Airport director Buzz Sawyer said Tuesday the Federal Aviation Administration is currently investigating the crash.