Niagara's plane crash victims remembered

By Maryanne Firth, St. Catharines Standard

Ben Jeffries, Corey Mijac and Rifat Tawfig. (Facebook Photos)

Ben Jeffries, Corey Mijac and Rifat Tawfig. (Facebook Photos)

Three young Niagara men are being remembered for their love of aviation after a tragic plane crash in rural, mountainous northwestern Pennsylvania.

Corey Mijac, 18, Ben Jeffries, 19, and Rifat Tawfig, 25, were killed in the crash Sunday night.

The wreckage of their plane, a small Canadian-registered Piper PA-28 Cherokee, was discovered by a search and rescue team the following day.

The aircraft had been bound for Niagara District Airport in Niagara-on-the-Lake after departing from Richmond, Va.

Mijac and Jeffries, both recent graduates of Governor Simcoe Secondary School, are from St. Catharines and Niagara-on-the-Lake respectively. Tawfig is from Niagara Falls.

Both teens were students at St. Catharines Flying Club, where Tawfig worked as an instructor.

Club spokesman Conrad Hatcher said the trio were in one of five planes returning back from several days of training in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“It was a trip to gain experience, have a little adventure. You learn a bunch of things when you travel,” he said, adding it’s a journey the club has made many times over the years.

Some of those planes returned a day earlier than planned, but the Cherokee and another near identical aircraft remained in South Carolina before departing Sunday.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration lost radio contact with the plane over Potter County, Pa., at about 7 p.m. Sunday. It disappeared from radar at that time.

Hatcher said the aircraft was about 20 minutes behind another plane from the club, that took off from the same Richmond fuelling stop.

“They were preceded by one of our flying club airplanes. It flew the exact same route with no difficulty, which adds to the mystery.”

As for reports of inclement weather, Hatcher said there may have been some rain on course, but not a “full-blown thunderstorm” as some media outlets have reported.

“That’s a big difference when you’re flying an airplane. Rain is easily dealt with and thunderstorms are something you definitely want to avoid.”

He has heard no details about what may have caused the crash.

“The facts are pretty bare right now. What we don’t know is much bigger than what we do know,” he said.

Hatcher spoke highly of the three young men, whom he had each come to know during their time with the club.

Tawfig earned his instructor qualification earlier this year. The instrument-rated pilot had about 400 hours under his belt.

“He was well-qualified to do this,” Hatcher, also a flying instructor, said, adding Tawfig would have been the one “in charge” on the aircraft.

“We think it was Ben Jeffries that was the other one in the front seat and Corey in the passenger seat in the back.”

Tawfig was an avid flyer who loved to share his passion with others.

“If you looked at his Facebook page, it’s all airplanes,” Hatcher said. “His dream was to fly for an airline, preferably in the Middle East.”

His family is from Saudi Arabia.

“The thing that everybody says about Rifat is how nice a guy he was. He was very kind, popular with the students,” Hatcher said.

The 6-foot-5 instructor was known to many as a “gentle giant,” he added.

Mijac and Jeffries were also no strangers to the club, where they attended ground school and spent much of their spare time.

Mijac even completed a high school co-op placement at the facility, located at Niagara District Airport.

“Corey was one of those guys that could always make you smile,” Hatcher said. “He was always smiling, generally a happy person. Smart kid. Artistic. Athletic. The whole package.”

He had been coming to the club since he was 14 or 15 years old.

Jeffries had discovered a love for flying after his own father took lessons with the club, Hatcher said.

“I think he’d recently decided he was going to take flying a little more seriously and was here several times a week,” he said, adding he was always “very pleasant” to be around.

“We thought maybe he was going to become a commercial pilot.”

Neither Jeffries nor Mijac had completed all the requirements to obtain their pilot’s licence, “but both were on that path and were fairly close,” Hatcher said.

“Both had made their first solo flights a while ago.”

Tributes to Mijac, Jeffries and Tawfig flooded social media Tuesday, including on their Facebook pages, with kind words and memories.

“It’s tragic. People will say, well why did it happen? We don’t know. We may never know,” Hatcher said. “Everybody would like to have an answer.”

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

“We all know intellectually that anything like flying, driving or boating carries a certain amount of risk. You can only manage it, you can’t eliminate it,” Hatcher said.

News of the tragedy has hit the club, whose members become a family of sorts, quite hard.

The facility’s doors will be closed until at least Saturday, if not longer, out of respect for the three men and their families, Hatcher said. The closure is also in place to prevent flight instructors, who may be experiencing shock, from taking off, he said.

Funeral details have yet to be released.

The club will remain closed until all three ceremonies have been completed.

Hatcher said the club will plan something to honour the three young men.

“We’re still in the shock stage and we haven’t decided what that’s going to be, but we have begun talking about several ideas,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting the board members together and deciding what would be appropriate.”