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Days after a small private airplane veered off course, was met by F-16 fighter jets, and eventually plummeted into a forest — killing four people including a Keller Williams agent — officials are exploring the possibility that a lack of oxygen in the cabin may have led to the tragedy.
The Cessna 560 Citation V crashed into Virginia’s George Washington National Forest Sunday afternoon. Long Island-based Keller Williams agent Adina Azarian died in the crash, as did her 2-year-old daughter, their nanny, and the plane’s pilot.
The crash happened after the plane and pilot became unresponsive. Officials didn’t initially say why that may have happened, but on Wednesday unnamed sources told multiple media outlets that investigators were looking at a lack of oxygen inside the plane as a cause.
A lack of oxygen can lead to a condition known as hypoxia, which can impair judgement, render a person unconscious and eventually lead to death. The risk of hypoxia rises at higher altitudes, where the atmosphere is thinner. Planes, including both commercial jets and the Cessna involved in Sunday’s crash, pressurize their cabins so that passengers and crew have enough air to breathe.
However, if a high-altitude plane’s cabin depressurizes, people inside can quickly begin suffering the effects of a lack of oxygen.
According to a statement the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provided to Inman earlier this week, the Cessna was flying at about 34,000 feet — comparable to the cruising altitude of a commercial jet — for most of its flight.
The NTSB statement further notes that the plane initially left an airport in eastern Tennessee early Sunday afternoon. It was headed to Long Island, New York, but air traffic control lost contact during ascent, the NTSB said.
The plane eventually made it to the Long Island area, overshot its target airport, then turned around and flew back to the D.C. and Virginia area. A total of six fighter jets from multiple bases eventually moved to intercept the plane as it crossed the region’s restricted airspace. The fighters flew so quickly to intercept the Cessna that they caused a sonic boom felt throughout the region.
Throughout the incident, the plane didn’t respond to attempts at communication.
According to CNN, a fighter pilot was able to see the Cessna pilot slumped over inside the plane. Citing unnamed sources, CNN also reported that the F-16s did not shoot the Cessna down.
Inman reached out to the NTSB Wednesday for additional details but did not immediately receive a response.
In the wake of the crash, Keller Williams described Azarian in a statement as an “iconic real estate agent in New York City and Long Island.” Azarian’s father confirmed to The New York Times that she was on the plane with her 2-year-old daughter, and said that his company owned the plane.
Azarian had been with Keller Williams since 2011, first working in New York City before later moving her base to East Hampton.
Keller Williams also said in its statement that it was “deeply saddened” by Azarian’s death.
“We are devastated by this profound loss,” a letter distributed internally to Keller Williams personnel, and provided to Inman, said. The letter added that Azarian “will be sorely missed.”