A single-engine plane carrying two people crashed and briefly burst into flames on the San Diego Freeway in Long Beach early Sunday night, killing one pilot, critically injuring the other and tying up holiday traffic for miles, officials reported.
The crash occurred shortly before 7 p.m. after the plane reported trouble on its descent to Long Beach Municipal Airport, authorities said.
The Piper Malibu PA46 struck the center divider of the freeway, near Redondo Avenue. The resulting mayhem, including several minor traffic accidents as vehicles tried to avoid the wreckage, forced the California Highway Patrol to close nearly all lanes of the freeway for a seven-mile stretch.
Large Amount of Fuel
The plane was carrying a large amount of fuel when it crashed--about 50 gallons--causing Long Beach airport authorities to speculate it may have been performing "touch-and-go" practice maneuvers. But Bob Moll, a spokesman for the Long Beach Fire Department, said authorities were still checking the origin of the plane.
Killed in the crash was pilot John Spiesman, 62, of Los Gatos, Long Beach fire spokesman Tom White said. Co-pilot Dennis Paboojian, 46, of Cupertino, was in critical condition at Long Beach Memorial Hospital with third-degree burns over 65% of his body.
Both victims were qualified pilots, officials said.
"It's a little unclear whether it was a full crash or a forced landing," said Long Beach Police Lt. Gary Whinery.
No serious injuries were reported to freeway drivers, even though the crash occurred during peak traffic hours as the Thanksgiving holiday drew to a close, said CHP dispatcher Janelle Clem.
The freeway was closed between the Long Beach and San Gabriel River freeways, with authorities allowing traffic through on one lane in each direction.
Steve Owens, a police officer in nearby Signal Hill, said he watched the plane crash after hearing a radio dispatcher say the pilot reported smoke in the cockpit. From a vantage point high on Panorama Drive, Owens said he saw the plane, flying to the east, bank sharply to the northwest "and then it just nose-dived into the freeway" and "exploded in a big ball of fire."
The plane passed over the airport once and one of the pilots asked tower controllers to confirm that the landing gear was down, said Long Beach firefighter Dave Kean, part of the airport crash crew. The pilot requested emergency equipment on the scene and was planning to circle once more before landing, he said.
R. Gary Mucho, chief of the Los Angeles field office for the National Transportation Safety Board, said several people in the Long Beach airport tower confirmed the radio report of "a problem . . . possibly smoke in the cockpit."
The plane was believed to have hit the freeway wing-first, spewing fuel as it bounded north on the southbound side of the center divider, Mucho said. It was unclear who was actually piloting the dual-controlled aircraft, Spiesman or Paboojian, he said.
The Piper Malibu, described as a top-of-the-line, single-engine plane, nearly struck a Nissan Pulsar NX occupied by Laguna Beach residents Beth Kuecker, 35, and Sandra Sisson, 46, who were returning home after dropping off a friend at Los Angeles International Airport.
When she saw the plane bank, Kuecker said, she knew it was headed for the freeway.
"I knew we were going to get hit," she said. "I looked up to the right and saw the plane turn sideways. It was white, so I could see it clearly. I put my hand up in front of my eyes. I thought we were going to die."
The plane--or part of the fireball from the plane crash--struck the front of the car, denting and charring the hood.
Sisson, the driver, recalled seeing "a wall of flame in my windshield. I felt intense heat."
"All I could think of was, let's get out of this car," Kuecker said. "It was very hot. I thought we were finished."
But then, seconds after Sisson's car was engulfed in flames, an unidentified motorist stopped his car in the southbound lanes, jumped out with a fire extinguisher and put out the fire--and drove away.
"There's the guy I'd like to find," said Long Beach Fire Battalion Chief Craig Halker. "There's your hero."
Runway 30 at Long Beach Airport, which faces northwest, is only about 100 yards from the freeway at its closest point, just east of Lakewood Boulevard.
In April, two doctors returning from Las Vegas walked away from a plane crash uninjured after missing that runway and plunging through the roof of a Long Beach car-stereo installation shop.
Hours after Sunday's crash, traffic remained tied up in both directions on the freeway as officials continued trying to drain fuel from the damaged aircraft fuselage.
Ironically, the crowded freeway conditions may have prevented an even larger disaster, because traffic was moving very slowly, said Long Beach Police Lt. Robert Kalowes.
"It's a miracle" that it wasn't worse, Kalowes said. "It's amazing."
Times staff writers Roxana Kopetman, Dave Lesher and Richard O'Reilly contributed to this article.