SAN DIEGO — A small Mexican airliner, attempting to land at Tijuana airport in heavy fog early Wednesday, crashed into a hillside on the U.S. side of the border, killing all six people on board.
Killed were the Mexican pilot; two American technicians who worked for a Bay Area firm, and three Japanese officials of a salt exporting company. They were returning from a trip to a salt mine at Guerrero Negro, about 320 miles south of San Diego in Baja California, authorities said.
The passengers were expected to go to the salt company's purchasing office in San Diego after their arrival in Tijuana, then catch flights from San Diego to their homes, an official of Exportadora de Sal, a Mexican-Japanese venture that exports salt from Baja, mostly to Japan.
Worst Crash Since '79
The air crash was the worst in San Diego County since 1979, when 10 people were killed in the crash of a small plane near San Ysidro, officials said.
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were combing through the wreckage seeking clues to the cause of the crash.
Speculation centered on the foggy conditions, but officials declined to comment on a cause.
"It's too early to know what went wrong," said Scott Crosier, an aviation safety investigator with the FAA.
The twin-engine, six-seat Cessna 340, crashed into the isolated hill just across the border in the Otay Mesa area about 8 a.m. after the two-hour flight from Guerrero Negro, officials said. Border Patrol agents, hampered by heavy fog, reached the wreckage about 8:15 a.m. The crash site was about 50 feet from the crest of a mesa situated along the airport approach.
1.5 Miles West of Airport
The crash site was about 1.5 miles west of Tijuana International Airport, said Miguel Araiza, chief of radar approach control at the airport. He said the plane was attempting an instrument landing because of the poor visibility.
Air traffic controllers lost contact with the aircraft at 7:56 a.m., about 30 seconds before the anticipated touchdown, Araiza said. The airport official estimated visibility at half a mile. However, firefighters who rushed to the scene said visibility was no more than 50 feet because of the dense fog.
"It was really foggy at the time of the crash," San Diego Fire Department spokesman Larry Cook said. "One person said they heard an airplane and . . . a crash noise, but couldn't see it because there was too much fog."
The aircraft was owned by Aero Servicios de Sonora, an air-taxi service based in Hermosillo, Mexico. The plane was rented by the salt company, officials said.
Chunks of Wreckage
At the crash site, about 200 yards north of the border, various chunks of wreckage, including the twisted remains of the fuselage, wings and engines, were spread along the hillside, along with pieces of luggage and papers.
Four of the bodies were found amid the wreckage and two other victims were still inside the aircraft, authorities said.
The two Americans were identified as Manuel Hernandez, 51, of Oakland, and Ramon Schoenberg, 59, of Richmond, Calif. Both are employees of Berkeley/Tait Pumps who were looking at pumps at the salt mine, officials said.
The pilot was identified as Raul Gutierrez Tellez, 24, from the Mexican state of Sonora.
The Japanese were Hideo Omachi, 41; Yoshihito Kodani, 65, and Katsuo Sugimoto, about 55, all reportedly from Tokyo, and representatives of Exportadora de Sal, a Mexican-Japanese joint venture.
The crash occurred in a rugged area known as the Soccer Field on the U.S. side of the border. The area is a favorite staging point for illegal entrants to the United States.
As emergency vehicles raced to the scene, dozens of residents and migrants gathered in the Tijuana neighborhood known as Colonia Libertad to view the site. Agents of the U.S. Border Patrol held the onlookers back.
The only access to the site was via unpaved roads used mainly by Border Patrol vehicles.