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Pilot Dies as Plane Slams Into Apartments

October 18, 1987|STEVEN R. CHURM and BOB SCHWARTZ | Times Staff Writers

A single-engine plane crashed into an apartment complex in Buena Park shortly after takeoff from Fullerton Municipal Airport Saturday, killing the pilot and triggering a fire that damaged four buildings. No one on the ground was injured by the crash, authorities said.

The cause of the 12:12 p.m. crash was not known, but witnesses said the blue and white Piper Cherokee Arrow appeared to have lost power just before its left wing clipped a tall palm tree, sending it cartwheeling into the cluster of apartment buildings. The plane exploded in flames on impact.

Many of the residents of the Village apartments in the 7100 block of Melrose Street were at Buena Park's Silverado Days parade when the crash occurred, City Manager Kevin O'Rourke said. One firefighter was slightly injured fighting the blaze.

Dressed for Parade

"It's a miracle nobody else was hurt," said O'Rourke, who helped coordinate emergency efforts at the scene. He was still wearing the white ruffled shirt and black tie that were part of his costume as a participant in the annual civic parade. "Thank God for Silverado Days," O'Rourke said.

O'Rourke said the plane took off from the Fullerton airport at 12:09 p.m.

The pilot, Lewis Hassman, 64, of Westminster, was on the way to Pendleton, Ore., according to a flight plan filed at the airport, O'Rourke said. He had planned to visit his wife, who suffered a stroke two years ago and lives in an Oregon convalescent home, a neighbor of Hassman's in Westminster said.

Shortly before takeoff, O'Rourke said, the plane had taken on 60 gallons of gasoline.

"When that plane crashed it was carrying an awful lot of fuel," O'Rourke said. "No wonder there was a lot of smoke and fire."

Normally a Play Area

The area where the plane crashed is usually full of children, said Rosie Martinez, 38, a neighbor. One of the wings of the four-seat plane came to rest only a few feet from the front window of an apartment covered with Halloween decorations.

"It was like a horrible earthquake," said Martha Sandler, 62, who lives several buildings away from the crash site. "When that plane hit this whole place shuddered . . . the flames went 30 feet in the air."

Officials of the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, who arrived at the scene to examine the wreckage, would not speculate on what caused the crash, about 1 3/4 miles southwest of the airport in a densely populated residential area. Police closed off several blocks between Western and Knott avenues.

Milan Gjurich, 60, who lives in a neighboring apartment complex, said he had just returned from work when he looked up and saw the plane "gliding toward the ground." He said he knew it was in trouble because he heard the engine sputter and then go dead.

The plane was less than 100 feet in the air when the wing hit a palm tree, causing it to flip and then cartwheel several times, he said. It skipped across the roofs of several of the two-story apartment buildings before plowing into the rear of one of them, he said. The explosion tore a 10-foot hole in the back of the building.

Residents Not at Home

Police said one of the three units in the apartment building that was hit was vacant and residents of the other two were not home.

Gjurich said he and neighbors ran to the burning buildings, kicked in the doors and yelled at residents to come out.

Susan Koehler, 24, was dusting her bedroom in an upstairs apartment in a nearby building--about 30 yards away. "I never saw it coming," a 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 buildings were burning. It took 60 firefighters from five departments--Buena Park, Fullerton, Anaheim and Orange and Los Angeles counties--about 30 minutes to bring the flames under control. The building hit by the plane was gutted and three other buildings suffered major damage.

A firefighter suffered minor neck injuries when a roof collapsed on him.

Dozens of people evacuated from the apartments lined the streets three hours after the crash, waiting for police to allow them back inside.

In all, six apartments in the complex were damaged, but National Transportation Safety Board officials sealed seven units, including one that was not damaged, near where some of the wreckage landed.

Occupants of two of the damaged units were being assisted Saturday night by the Orange County chapter of the American Red Cross, volunteer Linda Kinkade said. Other residents are making their own arrangements.

The apartment manager, Robert Hasty, offered to relocate displaced residents in vacant units elsewhere in the complex.

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