NEW YORK (AP) — One passenger was a caretaker from Jamaica known for her generous portions of plantain porridge. Another was a luxury real estate broker, returning from a family visit with her 2-year-old daughter. The man behind the controls of the plane, last seen slumped in the cockpit, was a skilled aviator with decades of experience.
All four died Sunday when the private jet they were traveling in lost contact with air traffic controllers and crashed into a mountain in rural Virginia. At one point, the unresponsive Cessna Citation flew directly over Washington, prompting the launch of military fighter jets that set off a sonic boom around the capital region.
As federal investigators continue to piece together what happened, new details are emerging about the people who lost their lives in a tragedy that has left friends and family reeling from the Hamptons to South Florida.
Adina Azarian, 49, was well known in New York’s real estate circles, a luxury broker whose portfolio of exclusive listings were the envy of colleagues, friends said. She conceived her daughter during the pandemic, then hired Evadnie Smith, 56, as a live-in nanny in her East Hampton home.
Known to the family as “Nanny V,” Smith traveled frequently with the mother and daughter, serving as a calming counterweight to Azarian’s occupation of high-stress deal-making.
“Adina used to joke that she’d hired the nanny not just for her daughter, but for herself,” recalled Raphael Avigdor, a longtime friend of the realtor. He said he was so impressed that he hired Smith’s step-sister to care for his mother in Florida.
Smith leaves behind one son in Jamaica, who could not be reached.
Prior to the crash, Azarian, her daughter Aria and Smith were in North Carolina to visit Azarian’s adoptive parents, the prominent Republican donors John and Barbara Rumpel.
Azarian, who grew up in Connecticut and New Hampshire with her biological mother, met the Rumpels by chance as an adult. The couple said Azarian reminded them of their daughter, Victoria, who had died at age 19 in a scuba diving accident.
“We just grew closer and closer and closer together,” John Rumpel recalled.
They felt such a strong connection with Azarian that they decided to adopt her — a process that was finalized when Azarian was 40 years old. Seven years later, Azarian conceived her daughter, Aria, through in-vitro fertilization.
“I could not love a human being more than I loved her and my grandbaby,” Rumpel said.
In recent years, Azarian had also re-established contact with her biological mother, Christina Graham, of Nashua, New Hampshire. Graham said she learned of the death after it was announced by the Rumpels, but hadn’t heard from them directly.
“I have a hard time accepting that she’s gone,” Graham said. “We were building our relationships. We were getting there.”
Rumpel identified the pilot as Jeff Hefner.
Rumpel, who owns several planes, said he’d recently hired Hefner, 69, to work for him fulltime as a pilot and mechanic. He said he’d worked with Hefner previously for about five years.
“He was top shelf, absolutely top shelf,” Rumpel said of Hefner’s piloting skills. “I wouldn’t have had my daughter and my grandbaby fly with him if he wasn’t.”
Dan Newlin, an attorney who heads a Florida law firm where Hefner worked as a flight captain, said Hefner was “a highly accomplished and skilled aviator” who flew for 25 years as a captain with Southwest Airlines and had more than 25,000 flight hours. After retiring from Southwest, Hefner became certified to fly numerous private aircraft, Newlin said in an email. He said Hefner was married with three children.
Hefner’s wife and children said he began as a crop duster and had an aviation career that spanned more than 40 years.
“We are devastated by the the news of this tragedy which took the lives of Jeff and all three passengers. Our hearts are full of sorrow for John and Barbara Rumpel for the loss of their daughter, granddaughter and nanny,” the family said in a statement.
Officials said the pilot stopped responding to air traffic control instructions within minutes of taking off from Tennessee. The plane flew to New York, near its destination on Long Island, then reversed course, flying directly over Washington.
Fighter pilots tasked with intercepting the wayward flight said Hefner appeared to be unresponsive and slumped over, according to officials.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation, though experts said a loss of pressurization inside the cabin was the leading theory.
Lavoie reported from Richmond, Virginia