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Heart attack caused 2013 crash

By Staff | Feb 23, 2014

“I just want the true facts to come out,” Candy Zabel, of Mankato and formerly of Delavan, says. “My husband was a great pilot and he was not performing aerobatics when his plane crashed, like news reports are saying.”

A report released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board backs her up.

They found that the cause of her husband’s plane crash on May 5, 2013, in Faribault County, was not pilot error, nor was it a mechanical issue with the aircraft itself.

The pilot, Jeffrey Dean Zabel, 44, was likely incapacitated due to an acute cardiac event and lost control of the aircraft, the report states.

In other words, he had a heart attack.

And, the NTSB report adds, the cardiac incident and the crash happened well after Zabel had completed doing a series of aerobatics near a friend’s farm by Easton.

The friend, Joel Rauenhorst, agrees with the report. After all, he was an eye witness to the whole event.

“Jeff often took off out of Mankato and flew over my farm,” Rauenhorst says. “He would always do about five minutes of aerobatics, then circle my place and wave before heading back to Mankato.”

And, Rauenhorst says, that is precisely what happened on Sunday afternoon, May 5, of last year.

“He flew over the farm, did his usual five minutes of aerobatics and circled the house a couple of times with his wings tilted so he could see the ground,” Rauenhorst recalls. “My dad and I could both see him in the cockpit waving and we waved back.”

Then Zabel turned and headed north towards Mankato so he could get home before dark and his plane grew small in the distance. But, between 60 and 90 seconds later, Rauenhorst says he heard the plane’s engine noise getting louder.

“He was coming back,” Rauenhorst says. “He flew low and looked like he was going to bank around the farm again, and maybe try and land into the wind.”

Instead, the plane suddenly spiraled to the ground and crashed.

Rauenhorst jumped into his truck and quickly drove across 300 feet of field to the plane and his friend. He thinks he was there in 30 to 40 seconds.

“Jeff was unresponsive, and I couldn’t find a pulse,” he recalls. “I called 911 and the Easton First Responders came out, then the Life Link helicopter.”

But, there was nothing which could be done, and Rauenhorst had lost his best friend. And so had Candy Zabel.

All three Rauenhorst and Jeff and Candy (Hanson) Zabel had met and become best friends in high school.

“Joel and I both went to Delavan High School,” Candy Zabel recalls. “Jeff went to Minnesota Lake High School.”

But, it was sports which brought them together, Rauenhorst recalls.

“Delavan and Minnesota Lake started pairing in sports,” he says. “Jeff and I were teammates on the combined football and baseball teams. We became best friends.”

In fact, when Rauenhorst joined the Marines after high school, he only kept in contact with one classmate; Zabel.

In his 15 years in the Marines, Rauenhorst had a lot of flight experience and also was a flight mishap investigator.

Which is why he feels he knows just what happened to his best friend.

“If he was having mechanical trouble with the plane, he would have tried to set it down right where he was, with a perfectly good paved highway right below him,” Rauenhorst says. “Instead, he flew it back towards me.”

The former Marine investigator thinks Zabel was having chest pains and knew he needed help. Landing in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t work so he was trying to get back to his friend’s farm and land there.

Both Candy Zabel and Rauenhorst say Jeff Zabel had not received medical attention for heart issues.

“But his grandfather died at 42 of a heart attack and his father died at 52 of a heart attack,” Rauenhorst says.

And, Candy Zabel adds her husband had a few symptoms but nothing real serious.

“We had gone on a big hike that day and he checked his pulse and it wasn’t too high,” she says. “He was fine when he left for the airport.”

However, an autopsy after the crash revealed Zabel had “severe coronary artery stenosis in the proximal left anterior descending coronary artery.”

The autopsy was unable to determine whether an acute cardiac event had happened at the time of the accident or not, but the NTSB report did list that as the probable cause of the crash.

As for his wife, Candy, and best friend, Joel, there is no doubt whatsoever as to what happened on that day in May last year.

“I lost my best friend that day,” Rauenhorst says. “But the truth is, Candy was always his best friend Jeff was lucky enough to marry his best friend.”