Two Westport residents survived the crash of a small plane they rented Saturday at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford, an accident that has re-ignited a decades-old debate over safety at the Bridgeport-owned airport.

The pilot renting the plane, Paul Sward, and his wife, Roxanne, were extricated from the wreck by Stratford and Bridgeport firefighters after the plane's landing gear struck the "blast fence" that protects one end of the runway, chopping off a wing. The aircraft skidded down the runway and erupted into flames about 9:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Swards were taken to Bridgeport Hospital, where Paul, 59, was evaluated and later released. Roxanne, 58, fractured her leg in multiple places, Bridgeport police said, and was listed Sunday afternoon in stable condition at the hospital.

The plane is owned by former state Sen. Rob Russo of Bridgeport, an active Republican and lawyer, who was leasing out the aircraft through an aviation company .

On the website Meetup.com, Sward's profile for the Mid Island Pilots' Club shows three photos of planes flying high in the air, one of them Russo's.

The crash rekindled the debate about installing a "safety zone" at one end of the airport's runway, which federal agencies have recommended over the objections of Stratford residents and environmentalists.

The debate has focused on the thick, metal blast fence that shields traffic on nearby Main Street in Stratford from the heat and debris stirred up by planes readying for take-off from one of the airport's two runways.

There have long been plans to replace that fence -- which has been crashed into at least four times in the past 17 years -- with a stretch of soft, concrete-like material about the length of a football field that would give way when a plane runs over it, creating an emergency braking system. That plan, which the Federal Aviation Administration has endorsed and for which funding is in place, would require moving back Main Street and the piping beneath it several hundred feet.

Opponents, however, have blocked that plan for years by raising environmental concerns about the surrounding area and by stoking fears that such a remodeling would attract larger, louder planes to the airport.

The runway, meanwhile, has not been upgraded since 1982. And though it is deemed safe, it no longer complies with FAA standards.

Bridgeport and Sikorsky officials maintain that the safety upgrade would not lengthen the runway by an inch.

"We've been pushing to do this," Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch said Sunday. "The FAA and state are on our side. We just want to have a more cooperative relationship with the town of Stratford. We don't want to ram it down anyone's throat, but we've got to get it done. They're running out of excuses."

The worst incident involving the blast fence came in April 1994, when a chartered plane carrying nine people toward a fogbound Sikorsky Airport overshot the runway and crashed into the blast fence. Fuel that spilled out quickly ignited, engulfing the plane in flames and killing eight of the people on board who had survived the impact. A ninth man was severely burned and spent four years in and out of the hospital.

Since then, at least two similar crashes have occurred, though with no fatalities, said Tim Brady, partner in Three-Wing Flying Services of Stratford.

The plane on Saturday was coming in from the opposite direction, over Main Street, when it struck the fence.

The plane that crashed Saturday, a Piper PA-32 Cherokee, cost Russo more than $100,000 when he bought it four years ago.

To defray the cost of owning the plane, which he said was fully insured, he often rents it through Three-Wing Flying Services of Stratford, which has a stable of six planes that can be hired for about $80 to $90 an hour, excluding fuel costs.

Russo learned of the crash Saturday night from the company.

"Carolyn (his wife) and I are most thankful that no one was hurt," Russo said by phone Sunday morning.

In recent years, he and his wife have flown the plane, with the tail number "N600DK," to Nantucket and Michigan. Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year, he flew 750 pounds of medical supplies to Florida, which were then relayed to the Haiti, he said.

"Losing the plane is like losing a member of our family," Russo said.