A single-engine plane crashed into an apartment complex in Buena Park on Saturday shortly after takeoff from Fullerton Municipal Airport, killing the pilot and triggering a fire that damaged parts of four buildings, authorities said.
The cause of the 12:12 p.m. crash was not immediately known, but witnesses said the blue and white Piper Turbo Arrow IV was losing altitude when its left wing clipped a tall palm tree and the plane cartwheeled into the cluster of three-unit buildings.
The pilot was identified by the Orange County coroner as Lewis T. Hassman, 64, of Westminster. No one on the ground was injured.
Many at Parade
Many of the residents at The Village apartments in the 7100 block of Melrose Street apparently were at Buena Park's Silverado Days parade, City Manager Kevin O'Rourke said.
"It's a miracle nobody else was hurt," said O'Rourke, who helped coordinate emergency efforts at the scene, still wearing the white ruffled shirt and black tie he wore as a participant in the annual civic parade. "Thank God for Silverado Days," O'Rourke said.
The pilot was en route to Pendleton, Ore., according to a flight plan he filed at the airport, O'Rourke said. O'Rourke said the light plane took off from the Fullerton airport at 12:09 p.m.
Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, who arrived at the scene Saturday afternoon to examine the wreckage, would not speculate on what caused the fiery crash, about 1 3/4 miles southwest of the airport in a densely populated residential area.
'Gliding Toward the Ground'
Milan Gjurich, who lives in a neighboring apartment complex, said he had just returned from work when he looked up and saw the plane losing altitude. He knew it was in trouble because he could not hear the plane's engine and it "seemed to be gliding toward the ground."
Then the left wing hit the palm tree, causing the plane to flip and then cartwheel several times, skipping across the roofs of several of the apartment buildings before plowing into the rear of a three-unit complex, he said. The plane exploded on impact, tearing a 10-foot hole in the back of a two-story building. Police said one of the units was vacant and residents in the other two apartments were not home.
But Susan Koehler, 24, was upstairs in an apartment less than 30 feet from the crash site.
"I never saw it coming," a visibly shaken Koehler said. "It hit, and then there were flames everywhere. I ran downstairs and out the front door yelling, 'Fire! Fire! Fire!' It was awful."
When firefighters arrived, the wood-shingled roofs on four of the apartment buildings were burning. About 60 firefighters from Buena Park, Fullerton, Anaheim and Orange County battled the flames, which caused moderate damage to three of the buildings. The upstairs of the fourth building, where the plane crashed, was gutted.
Juan Cheguen, 28, who lives in the complex hit by the plane, was only moments from home, returning from his job as a framer in a nearby gift shop, when he saw the flames.
"We're lucky nothing happened to us," said Cheguen, whose wife and daughter were at the parade. Still, Cheguen said, "I think we lost everything--clothes, furniture, everything."
The back wall of the apartment, which the Cheguens moved into three weeks ago from Norwalk, was mostly caved in.
Another resident of a damaged apartment was in the process of moving out, according to Robert Hasty, the manager of the complex.
In all, residents of seven units were prohibited by fire officials from returning to their apartments. The Orange County chapter of the Red Cross will be helping occupants of five of the apartments, and residents of two others will be housed in other units within the complex, Hasty said.