March 21, 2014

Police continue to investigate Southlake pilot’s death

Thomas Saunders fell more than 100 feet from a hotel balcony during a spring break trip to Florida.

Florida police are continuing their investigation into the death of Thomas H. Saunders, the Southlake man who fell more than 100 feet from a hotel balcony Wednesday morning.

Friends said Saunders, 62, an American Airlines pilot who was recovering from a stroke only months ago, was feeling well enough to drive from Southlake to Kansas City, Mo., to pick up his youngest daughter, Rachel, and her three friends for a spring break trip to Panama City Beach, Fla.

“He was doing quite well,” said Peter Fehn, who said he met Saunders more than 30 years ago. “He was working out with me three days a week and going to physical therapy two days a week.”

“But something happened,” Fehn said. “I don’t know what.”

Police have been reviewing video footage of Saunders from the hotel that was taken just before he fell from the 12th floor, said Capt. Robert Carlson of the Panama City Beach Police Department. Based on its preliminary investigation, police do not believe that Saunders was impaired by drugs or alcohol, Carlson said.

Police are awaiting an autopsy report before making any conclusions, Carlson said. Results from toxicology tests could take more than six weeks, Carlson said.

“We believe this to be a tragic accident that could have happened because of a pre-existing medical condition,” Carlson said Friday.

Saunders was heavily involved in autocross racing, as was his daughter Rachel, said another friend, Greg Piper. Saunders helped start the Texas Region Sports Car Club of America and helped get Rachel involved when she was 5 years old, Piper said.

Piper said friends have told him that footage shows Saunders and his girlfriend drinking coffee on the balcony. After the girlfriend left the balcony, Saunders stood up and braced himself against the wall before tumbling over the railing, Piper said.

“He was was on medical leave from American Airlines ever since he had that light stroke last year,” Piper said. “When he stands up he leans forward a little bit and he takes shorter steps. But if you didn’t see him stand up or walk, you would never know anything was ever wrong. In his mind, he was going to get back in the cockpit and start flying triple 7s again. He knew it would be hard but he was ready to start the process.”

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