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California and the West

Plane Crash Over Corona Kills 3

Tragedy: Midair accident sends debris falling onto a house and condo complex, setting both afire.

March 20, 1998|TOM GORMAN and ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CORONA — Two light planes collided in a searing fireball over a residential area in Riverside County on Thursday evening and the wreckage plunged into a house and a nearby condominium complex, setting both afire. At least three men were killed.

Officials said two of the dead apparently were the pilots. Whether there were any other people on the aircraft--and whether the third victim was a passenger--was not immediately determined. None of the dead were identified.

Although flaming debris narrowly missed people in both the house and condominium complex, there were no reports of any other injuries.

National Transportation Safety Board officials--called in to investigate the accident--did not provide any information on the types of planes involved, the airports from which they had taken off or their intended destinations.

However, witnesses said one plane appeared to be a single-engine Cessna 152 and the other was believed to have twin engines.

George Panagotacos said he was flying his light plane home to Corona from his job in Hawthorne about 5 p.m. when he saw the two aircraft collide in front of him.

"It was horrible," Panagotacos said. "There was a giant fireball in the air, and it just kept growing bigger. It looked like the napalm in Vietnam."

Panagotacos said that as he watched, two objects--large chunks of wreckage from the two planes--fell from the fireball.

"I saw one plunge right into a house by the golf course, and I could see the tail sticking out. The other one fell into another building not far away. I could see people running up to see what had happened."

Shahnaz Guahar said she was sitting in the upstairs bedroom of her home, beside a golf course on Hummingbird Lane in Corona, when she heard an explosion "and everything started shaking, like an earthquake."

The fuselage of one of the planes had crashed into a guest room about 20 feet from where she was sitting, watching the evening news on television.

Guahar--uncertain of what had happened--dashed downstairs and into the street, where she saw neighbors running toward her, shouting and pointing.

"I turned around," she said. "My house was on fire."

Half a mile from Hummingbird Lane, Ricky Gonzales, 13, and some friends had been standing outside an 88-unit condominium and apartment complex on Border Avenue when they heard the sound of an aircraft above them.

"We saw a streak of smoke and the plane coming down," the youth said. "It barely nicked the building, and then it hit the ground and exploded."

The flaming wreckage came to rest on a narrow walkway between two buildings--"right against our bedroom wall," said Angie Gurganious, who was in her apartment with her 3-year-old son, Trevor, and her husband, Scott.

"The glass from the window burst into the room," she said, "followed by a ball of fire."

As the flames spread rapidly through several units in the complex, the Gurganious family and others fled to safety.

Residents of two eight-unit buildings were evacuated, and there was serious fire damage to four of those units, authorities said. The house sustained substantial damage.

"It is God's great gift that there wasn't more damage done," said Fred Lynch, a public information officer for the Corona Fire Department.

The severely burned bodies of two of the victims were found amid charred rubble in the condominium complex. The third body was found in the house on Hummingbird Lane.

Times staff writer Lisa Richardson contributed to this story.

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