Finding Their Strength

Three years ago, a private jet crashed into Ken Gemmell’s home in Gaithersburg, killing his wife and sons. Gemmell decided he wasn’t going to let the tragedy destroy him or his daughter.

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Photo by Michael Ventura

Ken Gemmell no longer wears his wedding ring. At some point he started taking it off and putting it back on, eventually leaving it in a bowl on his desk. On May 27, 2016, nearly a year and a half after the accident, he changed his Facebook status to “widower.”

Now that he’s a single dad, Gemmell often goes on Facebook to gut check his parenting: Can the tooth fairy leave an IOU? How often does the Elf on the Shelf really need to be moved? He’s talked about some of his parenting misses, like trying to braid his daughter’s hair and getting her to eat kale. 

Gemmell, 39, says he’s had to learn a lot of things he never imagined he would. Like how to cook his wife’s mushroom risotto, and how to get nail polish to look less clumpy. His 10-year-old daughter, Arabelle, jokes that her dad isn’t the best at picking out her clothes, and says he’s had trouble controlling a girls sleepover. (He served pizza and pancakes in the morning.) Gemmell had relied on his wife, Marie, for things like this. 

Everyone on Arabelle’s soccer team knows about the accident—that’s how her dad refers to what happened—but no one really talks about it. The soccer field is a place where she doesn’t have to face the tragedy. It’s where her team, the Lynx, finished up another winning season last spring, scoring goals between coming up with new handshakes. It’s where her dad helps call the shots as assistant coach, working from his pink clipboard and jumping up and down along the sidelines to encourage his players. The field is also the place where Arabelle gets a comforting embrace from a teammate’s mother after getting knocked to the ground during the game, an embrace she should be getting from her own mom.

But the accident does come up sometimes, especially when Arabelle is around new friends, so she’s prepared for the question about her mom and brothers. “I usually say, ‘Do you remember the plane crash of 2014?’ ” she explains. “Most often they say they remember that, and I say, ‘Yeah, well that’s me. That happened to me.’ ”

Photos courtesy MyMCMedia

Late in the morning of Dec. 8, 2014, Gemmell was at work at Savi Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, when a co-worker told him that a plane had gone down outside of the Montgomery County Airpark. The Gemmells had lived nearly a mile off the flight path since buying their home on Drop Forge Lane in Gaithersburg in January 2005. He didn’t think there was any reason for concern. Planes don’t crash into houses, Gemmell thought. They crash at the end of a runway or in an abandoned field.

Marie, 36, was home on maternity leave with the couple’s 7-week-old son, Devin, and 3-year-old, Cole. Gemmell tried calling her cellphone to check in, but she didn’t answer. She’s probably busy folding the laundry we left in a pile last night, he remembers thinking. Maybe she took Cole and Devin to the park with their dog, Max, or she’s catching some sleep since she still gets up at night with the baby. He knew that Arabelle, then 7, would have already been at school. 

Gemmell’s cellphone rang. The caller, a friend and co-worker of Marie’s, told Gemmell that she had just received an unusual call from his wife. The friend said Marie told her that she had taken herself and the boys to a bathroom; then the phone went silent. Marie didn’t pick up when the friend called back, so she called 911.

That’s when Gemmell began to worry. He started searching online to see if he could find any news about the crash, and saw stories about the chaos happening on his street. He tried Marie again on her cell and on the house phone. OK, so something happened, and she is out helping someone in the neighborhood, he told himself. That was something Marie would do. Just weeks earlier she’d helped organize the second annual Connor Cures Gala & Silent Auction, raising funds for pediatric cancer research. She’d held fundraisers for Hurricane Sandy victims in 2012. 

Almost immediately, Gemmell got his first call from a reporter who wanted a comment about the plane crash at his home. He told the reporter that he wasn’t at the scene of the crash, and hung up. He told himself the reporter must have been Googling for people who live on the street, that it couldn’t be his house that was involved in this. Still, he found the co-worker he’d commuted with that morning and left for home, driving about 80 mph. The co-worker provided updates from her phone as Gemmell drove, soon determining that his cul-de-sac was the site of the crash. 

Then they saw photos of Gemmell’s four-bedroom home engulfed in flames, a plane’s wing lodged into its side. As they neared his Montgomery Village neighborhood, police and rescue workers had blocked the roads. Gemmell pulled up as far as he could, then walked to the cul-de-sac and told a police officer his name. Fire suppressant foam was everywhere, and bits of an airplane were strewn across his yard and his neighbor’s. Firefighters brought Gemmell to a command center, where he talked them through the layout of his house, gave them a picture of Marie and called his wife’s cell again. 

“They said they didn’t find anyone inside, so I’m thinking maybe she is out somewhere, dazed, confused, and they need these pictures to find her,” Gemmell says. He went looking for her in a nearby park, all the while calling her cellphone. He eventually drew investigators a map of the second floor of the home, marking the master bathroom he said they might have missed. He’d just finished making repairs to the shower in that bathroom, at Marie’s request. More than three hours after Gemmell pulled up to his house, investigators found three bodies huddled in that bathtub. Marie had tried to shield the young boys.

Gemmell’s father, then his brother and other relatives rushed to Drop Forge Lane. They wound up at the home of Marie’s aunt, Mary Hilberg, not far from the Montgomery County Airpark, to await word from investigators and Gemmell, who stayed at the scene. Cole’s day care provider, who had also cared for Arabelle, picked her up at school to shield her from hearing any news prematurely. 

When Gemmell got definitive word about his wife and sons, he went to Hilberg’s house to tell the family. He took Arabelle into a bedroom to try to explain to a child what the adults around her could not comprehend. “She didn’t understand the concept,” he says. “I told her there was a terrible accident, and got into it enough that she understood they were gone. They were just gone.”

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