When the Cessna 310Q flying overhead suddenly fell silent amid the first snow of winter, Tom Woodman knew his premonition had come true: A plane had crashed into a hillside on his 600-acre New Hampshire horse farm.

“We knew somebody was alive up there because of the screaming,” Woodman said.

He and his companion, Alicia Eitzman, scrambled up the steep Jackson Hill that early December morning in 2000, and there they came upon pilot Fernando Santiago, 39, his clothes completely burned off from the fiery impact.

Santiago, still alive, had managed to crawl about 20 feet from the wreckage. Seeing him there, Eitzman raced back to lead emergency crews to him, while Woodman blanketed him with their jackets, cradled the pilot’s head and quietly prayed with him.

Six days later, he was dead. When it came time to affix blame for the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board did what it usually does in fatal cargo accidents: It cited the pilot.

Yet records show that Santiago’s plane should never have been in the air that icy morning: The Cessna 310Q and three other planes operated by New York’s Island Express Inc. “were not certified for flight into known icing,” NTSB records show.

After the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration “initiated enforcement actions against Island Express for operating contrary” to federal aviation regulations.

But records obtained by The Miami Herald show the FAA knew the planes were not certified for flight into icing, and that the agency only acted after the death.

The NTSB’s ultimate probable cause finding made no mention of the company’s gaping lapse or FAA oversight. Instead, its two-sentence conclusion cited only: “The pilot’s continued flight into icing conditions, and his failure to use alternate air. A factor was the icing conditions.”

The finding echoed a trend throughout safety board reports on cargo crashes: In blaming the pilot, they often ignore the government that regulates the industry, the companies that sometimes skirt federal rules, and the cutthroat culture that forces some pilots to fly in treacherous conditions.

Santiago was delivering canceled checks that morning, Dec. 14, 2000, from Auburn, Maine, to Albany, N.Y.

After checking in on the icy, turbulent weather conditions, Santiago radioed, “OK, all right, going for it,” and he took to the air at 4:20 a.m.

He soon encountered trouble. “I’m not gonna be able to, uh, to make it to Albany, uh, I’ve gotta, uh I … I may have to shut down one engine,” he radioed. “I’m losing it right now, uh, I’d like to land immediately nearest airport available.”

The controller tried to guide Santiago to safe landing, but after 5 a.m., the pilot reported, “I’ve got a failed engine and uh, I guess I … I’m picking up a lot of ice.”

At 5:22 a.m., he crashed in Chesterfield, N.H., into a wooded hill at Woodman’s Road’s End Farm, home to a summer horsemanship camp for girls.

“This plane came in and it just stopped. And the minute it stopped I said, “Oh my God, that plane just crashed up on Jackson Hill.’ I jumped out of bed,” Woodman said.

He called authorities, and upon hearing screams in the distance, he and Eitzman went in search of the pilot.

“He didn’t have anything on him. We took our … coats and stuff and put them on him.”

After emergency crews arrived, Santiago had gone from shock into a coma, and he died days later.

Island Express, based in Albany, was the operating entity of MER Leasing Corp.

After Santiago’s crash, Island Express’ director of operations told NTSB investigators the company “never had any problems operating our aircraft with regards to icing.” Island Express’ chief pilot told investigators that the FAA inspector overseeing its operations “stated in the past that he would not impose any restrictions regarding their operation in icing, since there had been no problems.”

Another FAA official told investigators he “did not know” why the agency had not acted before.

What is clear: No FAA enforcement action had begun before the crash even though the inspector involved knew the planes were not certified for icing, records show.

The Albany FAA inspector, John Ludwig, did not respond to Miami Herald requests for comment. A summary of an NTSB interview with him after the crash quoted him briefly, saying that “because Island Express’s airplanes are not certified into known icing, (there) are no provisions in their operations specifications for flight into known icing.”

The FAA probe launched after Santiago’s death ended with an “uncollectible” action against MER because, by 2003, the company had surrendered its operating certificate. Calls to company phone numbers in New York were not returned.

“The thing I walked away from it was money and business is more important than people,” Woodman said.

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