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4th Victim of Mall Air Crash Dies; 88 Injured

December 25, 1985|MARK A. STEIN and JERRY BELCHER | Times Staff Writers

CONCORD, Calif. — The fiery crash of a light plane into a jammed shopping mall claimed its fourth fatality Tuesday, while hospital officials put the injury toll at 88.

Three men on the twin-engine Beechcraft Baron died instantly when the aircraft, making its second approach to fog-shrouded Buchanan Field, slammed into the middle of the Sun Valley Mall's roof shortly after 8:30 p.m. Monday, raining flaming fuel and debris down on panicked shoppers in the gallery two levels below.

Woman Dies of Burns

A young woman who had been shopping at the mall, burned over 80% of her body, died at San Francisco General Hospital Tuesday afternoon. National Transportation Safety Board investigator Don Llorente said at a news briefing late Tuesday that the cause of the crash was not known, but added that one of the aircraft's two propellers is missing and may provide a clue to what happened.

He said that he could not be sure that the propeller was not still lodged somewhere in the mall structure and that the search for it will continue.

The air safety expert said that if the propeller had come off in flight, "It would cause considerable control difficulty" and added that whether the plane could be brought back under control "would depend on the skill and control of the crew." Llorente said the aircraft's landing lights were on, its landing gear retracted and its flaps were up when it struck the mall, which is less than a mile southwest of the airfield. In answer to a reporter's question, he said this meant that the pilot had not mistaken the mall for a runway and was not attempting to land there.

The pilot, flying on instruments in poor visibility, missed the first landing attempt and had been ordered by the Buchanan tower to go around and make another approach.

Llorente said that a "normal missed approach" would not have put the aircraft over the mall. He also said visibility was just above the minimum standard and there was no safety violation in the second attempt to land.

Seven in Critical Condition

Concord police Lt. Richard Gordy said most of the injured were given emergency treatment at Mt. Diablo Community Hospital, after which many were transferred to eight other hospitals in and around this sprawling suburban city of 105,000. Hospital officials said seven of the injured were in critical condition. Four of the critically injured are children.

The Contra Costa County sheriff-coroner's office identified those aboard the airplane as James Mountain Graham, 67, of Oakland; John Frederick Lewis, 48, also of Oakland, and Brian Ward Oliver, 23, of Alamo.

Graham was the former president of General Air Services Inc. at Buchanan Field, Lewis was an employee of the firm and Oliver a friend of Lewis, a company spokesman said.

The fourth victim, Pam Stanford, 22, of Antioch, died at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the burn ward of San Francisco General Hospital, a spokesman said.

Even as the toll was being compiled, thousands of shoppers with Christmas bundles in hand bustled through the undamaged sections of the mall, located in the center of Contra Costa County, about 35 miles east of San Francisco.

And, outside, gawkers with cameras watched and clicked shutters as federal investigators worked on the roof of the two-story, third-of-a-mile-long mall.

NTSB technicians carefully lowered some parts of the tangled wreckage on ropes, while other debris was tossed over the side. One man on the roof was photographing the wreckage and the huge gash in the roof from every possible angle. The only recognizable part of the plane was a 10-foot section of the tail, which still hung at an angle over the edge of the building.

Llorente said the wreckage will be taken to San Jose, where it will be reassembled and analyzed. He said that, unlike commercial aircraft, the general aviation Beechcraft was not required to carry "black box" recording equipment, which often provides key information in determining the cause of air crashes.

$3.5-Million Damage

Three of the mall's four department stores were reopened Tuesday after engineers told Contra Costa County Fire Chief William Maxfield that the basic structure of the long, narrow building is sound, despite the estimated $3.5-million damage caused when the plane smashed into the roof Monday night.

The Macy's store, nearest the point where wreckage and flaming fuel spilled down, was closed. A spokesman for the 160-store mall's management said the heavily damaged central area of the building will take two to five months to repair.

Maxfield suggested that the disaster could have been anticipated.

"An aircraft crashing into Sun Valley Shopping Center two nights before Christmas, all loaded up (with shoppers) like it was--that's one nightmare we've been expecting," he told a reporter.

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