A pilot making an emergency landing on a north metro freeway with only a sliver of space between vehicles Wednesday night struck an SUV as his plane skittered to a stop, all while other motorists slammed on their brakes in an effort to avoid being caught in the mishap.
It had all the elements of a very bad situation. But nobody was injured in the freak accident, which happened about 9:30 p.m. on northbound I-35W near County Road E2 in Arden Hills.
" 'Lucky' isn't the right word, but I do feel like it was a miracle that we all survived and none of us got hurt," said Brittany Yurik, the SUV driver.
Yurik, 40, of Maple Grove, was on her way home from work when the single-engine Bellanca Viking aircraft dropped from the sky. Video from the Minnesota Department of Transportation showed the plane narrowly miss two other vehicles, landing just in front of them before clipping the SUV on the driver's side and coming to a stop. The plane straddled a concrete median wall separating through-lanes from a MnPass lane under construction.
David Stratioti and his wife were driving north on I-35W through New Brighton and Arden Hills when they saw a small plane in front of them low on the horizon. Things didn't look right, Stratioti recalled.
He figured the aircraft was heading for the Anoka County-Blaine Airport but that was still a few miles down the road.
"It was flying way too low for where we were," Stratioti said.
Seconds later, as Stratioti approached County Road E2, he saw the plane go down.
"We pulled over and saw the pilot and passenger get out of the plane and went over to see if everyone was OK in the SUV," said Stratioti, who said he called 911 and waited for first responders to arrive.
Scores of firefighters, police officers, state troopers and paramedics descended on the scene. Yurik recalled a man in blue scrubs and glasses who stopped to check on her, the pilot and a second person aboard the plane. Other witnesses stopped, too.
Yurik gave kudos to the pilot, identified by the patrol as Craig Gifford, 52, of Minneapolis, a competitive aerobatic pilot. Gifford represented the United States in international competition in 2017 and 2019 on the Unlimited Aerobatic Team, which took home the bronze medal at the world championships in South Africa in 2017.
Said Yurik: "If he wasn't so experienced, this could have ended very different for all of us. He has been very kind to me from the moment this happened. He was apologetic. I am so thankful that out of all the planes that could have hit me, it was him."
The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate.