ROCK SPRINGS - A Rock Springs man and two midwesterners died Sunday afternoon when two planes collided in mid-air near here, Sweetwater County Sheriff Rich Haskell said Monday.

The cause of the fatal collision is unknown at this point, officials said. Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board investigators were at the scene Monday morning, along with Sweetwater County Sheriff's deputies, coroners and emergency management personnel.

Haskell said Dave Knezovich, 54, of Rock Springs was the pilot and lone occupant of one of the aircraft. Knezovich was piloting a single-engine Cessna 172.

The sheriff said Ralph Otto, 67, of Wilmette, Ill., and C. Michael Downey, 67, of Columbus, Ohio, were flying in the second aircraft, a single engine Cirrus SR22.

The mid-air collision occurred over North Baxter Basin, located about 5 miles northwest of the Rock Springs/Sweetwater County Airport and about 6 miles northeast of Rock Springs. Officials said debris was scattered over an area in excess of a half-mile long at the crash site.

Knezovich was on a routine student solo flight when the collision occurred, Haskell said in a release. He had taken off from the Rock Springs airport and had been flying about an hour when the accident happened.

Otto and Downey were flying to Rock Springs from Polson, Mont., and were approaching the airport to land when the collision occurred.

Haskell said the pair were in normal radio contact with regional air traffic controllers in Salt Lake City just prior to the incident.

Authorities became aware of the collision after residents called concerning an "explosion in the sky" just after noon Sunday.

Haskell said one witness compared the explosion and subsequent plume of smoke to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. The witness said he could clearly see the burning tail section of one aircraft spiraling to Earth.

"Naturally, determining the cause (of the collision) will be the focus of the … investigation," Haskell said.

Southwest Wyoming Bureau reporter Jeff Gearino can be reached at 307-875-5359 or at gearino@tribcsp.com.

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