NTSB investigator examines wreckage, across the Apalachicola River from Bay City Lodge.

The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to release a preliminary report next week as to what caused the crash of a small plane early Friday evening in marshland just east of the Apalachicola River, across from the stretch between the Bay City Lodge and the railroad trestle.

The crash, which the sheriff’s office said happened at about 6:25 p.m. took the life of the pilot, a 73-year-old businessman from Fort Myers.

Lewis Midlam, owner of LCM Engineering, was piloting the Cessna 210D, a single-engine retractable gear aircraft built in 1964, when it crashed just after takeoff from the Apalachicola Regional Airport.

Sheriff A.J. Smith was first on the scene, and quickly borrowed a boat from Bay City Lodge owner Jimmy Mosconis, and together with Apalachicola Police Officer Ginger Creamer, quickly sped into the marsh where the wreckage was still burning.

“There was a lot of fuel. It was a hot fire,” said Smith. “He was about 30 feet from the wreckage.”

Mike Shiver, as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, ran boats to the scene. The sheriff’s office removed the body, and transported it to the medical examiner’s officer in Tallahassee for an autopsy, Smith said.

Ralph Hicks, an investigator out of the NTSB’s eastern regional office in Ashburn, Virginia, was on the scene Saturday, and Smith took him out to the wreckage, but high tide and the rain made it too wet to safely examine the wreckage.

“We’ll take them out there in the morning, at low tide hopefully,” said the sheriff. “The plane was totally destroyed, there’s not much left of it between the fire and impact.”

On Monday and Tuesday, St. George Island charter captain Jeremy Willoughby ferried two members of Florida Air Recovery out of Jacksonville to the scene, which is difficult to reach. A wildlands firefighter, Willoughby is familiar with how to navigate around helicopters, even having once worked in 2003 to recover the space shuttle Columbia, in southeast Texas.

“The first day they came out to get everything ready, and strap down,” he said. “On Tuesday we did the lift, which was three different lifts.”

He said the helicopter first transported the main fuselage to the Apalachicola airport, and then the engine and lastly the loose pieces that had been bagged up.

“It was pretty unrecognizable,” Willoughby said.

Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the NTSB, said Hicks likely will issue a preliminary report by early next week, with a determination of the probable cause of the crash expected within the next 12 to 18 months.

Holloway said Hicks will carefully examine the wreckage at a secure location, checking for any metal fractures or mechanical issues, and poring over maintenance records, pilot log books, medical records, flying history and certifications. Holloway said it is usually routine to order a blood draw.

In addition, investigators will examine the fuel supply where the plane last filled up. Jason Puckett, an airport spokesman, told county commissioners Tuesday that Midlam had fueled up at the airport prior to his flight, and that no problems have surfaced with the fuel on any of the other aircraft.

Puckett declined to comment on conjecture that Midlam was returning to the airport when the crash occurred.

While there appears to be few eyewitnesses to the crash, several heard it.

“There was no rain, no wind, just sprinkling, “ said a resident of Melanie Lane who was outside in his yard when he heard the buzz of a plane engine overhead, and then the sound it made, “like a firecracker under water” when it hit the trees, on the opposite side of the river.

He said he ran to the dock at the Manatee Bluff subdivision and watched helplessly from less than a quarter-mile away as the fire raged for about 15 minutes.

“I heard a little explosion while I was there on the dock,” he said. “I watched the flames burning. There’s nothing you can do from this side of the river.”

Midlam, who was a licensed private pilot since 2009, had flown in Friday morning from Fort Myers, a 328 mile trip that took about two hours.

Smith said he had worked in Port St. Joe that day, and was flying back to Fort Myers.

Issac Lang, a former commercial pilot who now lives on St. George, said the investigator will focus on whether the probable cause was either pilot error or mechanical failure.

Lang, who holds both basic and advanced NTSB certification as an aircraft accident investigator, a job he did for military, commercial airlines and insurance companies, said an investigator will first try to determine if there was possible engine or aircraft malfunction, and then look at possible spatial disorientation from flying into the dark while accelerating.