FULLERTON — Half-dressed and not fully awake, Ron Ernst padded downstairs Monday morning to light up the first cigarette of the day. The sun had been up about five minutes, but a thick, rolling fog shrouded the street. Upstairs, his wife still slept.
Ernst had not finished his morning smoke when the top floor of his apartment exploded in flames, causing his home to groan and heave on its foundation. As he sought out his wife, son and grandson, Ernst could not know how close he had come to dying. A single-engine airplane, perhaps off course in the fog, had rammed into the bedroom he left moments before.
"It saved his life," a fire official would say later in the day. "It was fate."
At 6:35 a.m., fate came crashing into the lives of the men, women and children who lived in the pale blue and white townhouse complex in the 1800 block of West Malvern Avenue, a street where the ubiquitous sound of overhead airplane traffic is scarcely noticed by inured residents. Ron Ernst survived the encounter. His wife, Sharan Ernst, did not.
Next door, the day also was just beginning for three longtime roommates. Ed Borget, 30, was showering, while Alan White, 29, and Robert Corbin, 27, were still in bed. They were good friends with their neighbors, the Ernsts, sharing dinners and small talk.
"If that plane had hit about four feet over, it would have hit the bathroom and it could have hit me," said Borget, a machinist. "My roommate was screaming, 'Everybody out!' I grabbed a fire extinguisher, but the fire was just too big. It grew so big and intense that I just got out of there."
Jeremy Ernst, 20, was downstairs sleeping when his home lurched violently as the plane tore a gash through the roof. When he smelled smoke, he ferried his 2-year-old nephew, Brandon, outside and then charged back into the apartment to help his father reach Sharan, the lone family member upstairs. But the fire was too intense.
Father and son emptied a fire extinguisher into the blaze, but it was "like throwing a cup of water," Jeremy Ernst related to a family member. Soon the smoke was too much. The impact of the crash had spewed fuel and flame throughout the master bedroom, and noxious black smoke filled the home.
Jeremy ran outside again to enlist the help of neighbors. Then he realized what had happened.
"I went around back and there was part of a wing on the ground," he said. "That's the first time I knew. The whole back of the house and all the plants were on fire."
The firefighters arrived quickly, but their efforts were hampered by the instability of the buckling building. The effort to reach Sharan Ernst was stalled as wood planks and poles were brought in to buttress the upstairs floor. As the quiet street turned into a major disaster scene, with scores of firefighters, police officers and media bustling behind yellow emergency tape, a weeping Ron Ernst and his son clung to each other and watched.
Jeremy Ernst said he and his family had talked about the air traffic and the two crashes in the area in recent years. He pointed across Malvern Avenue to the concrete bed of Brea Creek and a field beyond it. "We always said a plane would make it to the clearing," he said. "We never thought it would come right down on the house."
The elder Ernst, visibly shaken, declined to speak to reporters. But asked how long he had been married, he said, "All my life, really," as two chaplains consoled him and encouraged him to keep up hopes that his wife might be trapped but alive.
By noon, though, the family was told that three bodies had been spotted in the building. One of them probably was Sharan, the family was told.
As investigators began sifting through the charred remnants of the family's home, a group of friends and family members, some weeping, one carrying flowers, circled Ron and Jeremy Ernst. Wearing borrowed clothes, with their home and possessions destroyed, the two men shared quiet words about a lost wife and mother.
A wallet had been fished out of the rubble, and Jeremy Ernst and some friends pulled out the soaked contents. Spreading the cards and small photos out on the street curb, a weary Jeremy Ernst looked at his ravaged home and then down at the damp pictures of smiling friends and relatives.
"I don't have a picture of my mother. I wish I did, but I don't."