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Families, Military Mourn Fliers

Tragedy: Investigators search for cause of the crash that killed two at Point Mugu Air Show. Rest of events canceled.

April 22, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As investigators combed the wreckage Sunday of a Navy jet that crashed at the Point Mugu Air Show a day earlier, service members grieved for two comrades, and base officials said it was too early to know whether the popular event will continue.

Navy Cmdr. Michael Norman, 39, of Oxnard and Marine Corps Capt. Andrew Muhs, 31, who lived on the naval air base, were killed Saturday in the crash of their QF-4 Phantom. Norman was the pilot of the Vietnam War-era fighter jet and Muhs was the navigator.

"A lot of this is new to us," naval police Officer Glenn Carlton said of the crash as he guarded the front gates of the base and turned away civilians who didn't know that Sunday's show was canceled. "We don't see this kind of thing every day, so we adapt and get used to it."

Navy officials released no new information on the cause of the crash.

No one on the ground was injured when the jet peeled away from a low-flying formation, wobbled out of control and pitched to the right before diving into an area of marsh and farm fields just west of Point Mugu.

Sources close to the investigation have said that the plane likely experienced a mechanical malfunction. Witnesses said they saw white smoke and flames shooting from an engine moments before the crash.

Autopsies performed Sunday morning showed that both men died from multiple blunt force injuries, said James Baroni, senior deputy medical examiner for Ventura County.

Both crew members were married. Relatives of one of the fliers were at the show, officials said.

A man who answered the phone at the Muhs residence Sunday afternoon thanked those who had expressed their condolences but said the family was too upset to discuss the accident.

Investigators said evidence at the scene showed that at least one of the fliers attempted to eject from the jet in the seconds before it crashed. A private farming road leading to the crash site remained closed and under guard by naval police Sunday.

Military investigators pored over sections of the downed craft, which appeared to have broken up into dozens of metal chunks--the largest no bigger than a big-rig truck engine--across a 300-foot area.

A farm worker who watched the jet hit from less than 1,000 feet away declined to comment Sunday after talking with authorities.

Witnesses said they saw one of the crew members eject and fall into the flames.

The crash occurred about 12:30 p.m. near the Ventura County Game Preserve, nearly a mile away from where 25,000 spectators watched from a designated area at the base.

The impact shook the ground and sent flames and plumes of smoke more than 300 feet into the air. The rest of Saturday's air show was canceled along with Sunday's events.

Base officials said it was too early to say whether next year's show will take place.

Hours after the crash Saturday, Capt. Jim Rainwater, the commander of Naval Base Ventura County, said that despite the accident, "It's important that we have these kinds of shows" to help keep close ties with the community.

Some of the spectators who were turned away from the base Sunday said they had heard about the crash but were hoping it didn't mean the end for the air show after 39 years. Others were shocked to hear about Saturday's accident, and several people questioned whether the popular but risky shows should go on.

"These are senseless deaths," said Camarillo resident Michael Uwamawich, who was unaware of the crash as he approached the base's front gate Sunday with his 8-year-old daughter, Angela. "For their families it is such a waste. I would rather have had them fighting in the war. It's just sad."

Oxnard resident Kenneth Badoian had watched in disbelief with his 7-year-old daughter, Briana, as the jet disappeared from view and exploded. On Sunday, they returned to Missile Park just outside the base to leave a bouquet of flowers and a poem composed that morning.

"This is a way of saying thanks for all they have done," said Badoian as he stuffed a plastic-wrapped bouquet of daisies and orchids into a water bottle used as a vase. "I have been coming to this air show since I was a kid, so I felt like I had to do something."

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