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Jet Plummets Into Irvine Warehouse; 3 Aboard Killed

Aviation: The small private plane was trying to return to John Wayne Airport after developing problems following takeoff. Two of the victims were from Orange County.

December 01, 1996|TINA NGUYEN and GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

IRVINE — A small private jet tumbled from the sky Saturday afternoon, crashed through the roof of a warehouse and burst into flames, killing the three people aboard and sending more than 80 weekend employees of the adjacent manufacturing complex fleeing.

The four-seat, twin-engine Paris Jet Morane Sauliner 760 took off from John Wayne Airport about 1 p.m., airport spokeswoman Pat Ware said, but the pilot sent a distress message just moments into the flight and tried to turn back.

Airport emergency crews were alerted and waited for a possible crash landing, but the bright yellow French-built jet never made it, Ware said.

Instead, the aircraft plummeted into the Baxter Healthcare Corp. complex about a mile north of the airport, within blocks of the Costa Mesa Freeway, and burned on impact. No one on the ground was injured, officials said, but the plane's occupants had no chance of escape.

"There wasn't any opportunity for anyone to survive that fire, which was fueled by jet fuel," Orange County Fire Division Chief Rich Witesman said.

Coroner's investigators identified two of the victims as Orange County residents: David R. Hughes, 57, of Cypress; and Tina Schroder, 37, of Newport Beach. Officials said Schroder was a member of the Amelia Earhart 99 Club, a group of female aviators.

The third victim, the pilot and owner of the plane, was identified as Air Force Sgt. David Brooks Covell, 48, stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.

All three were licensed pilots, coroner's supervisor Rick McAnally said.

Two of the victims were found in the cockpit while the third victim was apparently ejected in the crash, Orange County fire officials said.

Officials of the National Transportation Safety Board were on the scene almost immediately to investigate the crash, but would not comment on preliminary findings or speculate on a possible cause.

Witnesses said the plane came in low and fast, bursting into flames as it smashed through the roof of a warehouse in the Baxter complex.

The industrial park in the 1400 block of McGaw Avenue comprises half a dozen buildings, including a factory that employs about 350 people in the manufacture of artificial heart valves.

The fire that engulfed the plane touched off a blaze that caused heavy damage to a 20-by-30-foot storage facility. Firefighters had the flames under control within an hour.

No employees were in the immediate area of the crash, said Randal Woodgruff, vice president of manufacturing for Baxter, a global health-care company based in Deerfield, Ill.

Because the plane crashed during a shift change, dozens of workers leaving and entering the buildings witnessed the tragedy.

"I heard a loud explosion, and everybody ran, and the alarm sounded," said Van Vu, a 26-year-old Garden Grove resident who works in an assembly facility next to the crash site. "It was really scary."

Another employee, Phuong Nguyen, 27, of Garden Grove, said she was leaving work when she heard the drone of the plane and saw it skimming the rooftops.

"It was really loud because it was so close," Nguyen said. "But I don't think I saw any smoke."

Ivan Nguyen, a stock worker at nearby Physician Sales Service, said the plane "dropped like a rock out of the sky. When it hit, the earth shook like an earthquake."

Hoping to rescue any survivors, Nguyen and a friend climbed to the warehouse roof, but the aircraft had already plunged into the structure.

The roof, made of highly flammable light foam insulation and plywood, caved in and burned rapidly. The collision also set off the building's sprinkler system, causing a mixture of leaking fuel and water to spread.

That volatile mixture hampered early efforts of the 100 firefighters on the scene, officials said. "It tore a chunk of the roof out . . . and that just kept the fire raging," Witesman said.

The plane crashed at a 45-degree angle, severing a wing that landed in a computer room adjoining the warehouse. The fuselage landed in a storage area containing cardboard and paper items, which also fed the flames, officials said.

Witness Chris Hopkins said he was playing golf at a nearby course when he saw the small craft dip and spiral downward. He said he heard "a high-pitched noise and saw the plane nose dive. It tilted to one side and then just capsuled toward us and corkscrewed down."

Hopkins telephoned for help, then rushed to the scene. By the time he arrived, teams of police and firefighters were already at work, he said later as he watched smoke billowing from the wreckage.

Officials at John Wayne said the airport was closed immediately after the crash and all flights diverted while investigators assessed the accident. It reopened in about an hour.

NTSB officials said the small jet was a vintage fighter-style craft likely manufactured in France in the late 1950s or 1960s and converted for civilian use as a training craft.

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