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4 Die, 12 Injured as Plane Crashes Into Crowd at Park

Accident: Aircraft clips a tree, scattering debris and sending the fuselage into holiday throng.

July 05, 2002|KENNETH REICH and ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A small twin-engine plane crashed into a crowd of families as they began their Fourth of July picnics at a San Dimas park Thursday afternoon, killing four people and injuring at least 12, four of them critically. Among the dead were the pilot, a 12-year-old girl and a 15-month-old boy.

Officials said the Cessna 310 was lifting off from nearby Brackett Field in La Verne when the pilot, Michael Brand, radioed that he was having trouble climbing. Witnesses said the plane began to sink and veered left over Puddingstone Reservoir, then clipped a tree on shore and began breaking apart. It skidded into a crowd of about 500 people who had been picnicking and playing at a lakeside beach.

"Debris, smoke and bodies went flying," said Javier Franco, 24, who was spending the day with his family at Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park. "It was chaos."

Frine Flores, 32, of Pasadena said: "Everyone was crying,"

Flores said she had finished her lunch and was heading to her car, "when all of a sudden, we heard a roaring sound." She said she looked up and saw the plane "coming in at a steep angle."

Franco said he and others ran to the wreckage to see if they could help. He said he saw two girls, one about 15, the other about 3, pinned beneath one of the wings.

"My father and some others helped me lift the wing off and we pulled them out," Franco said. He said the girls were silent and still. The mother of the younger girl ran up and lifted her child, moaning: "My baby. My baby," Flores said. A severely injured boy, who appeared to be about 4, was lying on the ground nearby.

Hospital officials, family members and coroner's officials identified the dead as Brand, 44, of Glendora, passenger Michael Alder, 49, of Glendora, Jackie Ngo-Ton, 12, of La Mirada and 15-month-old Brandon Truong of El Monte.

One of the critically injured was Jackie's 8-year-old brother, Andy. He was flown by helicopter to Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles, where he was reported unconscious and in critical condition with severe head wounds. A 12-year-old girl was also flown to the hospital, where she was in serious condition with internal injuries and multiple cuts and bruises.

Several of the injured were flown by helicopter to Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center and Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena.

The patients at the Pomona hospital were identified as Richard Kang, 54, and his wife, Kyung Kang, 49, both of whom were treated and released, and a relative, Duk Sun Kang, who was listed in serious condition. None of the other injured were identified, and details about their conditions were not immediately available.

Federal records indicate that Brand was an experienced pilot--a certified flight instructor with licensing that allowed him to fly commercially. Authorities said early in the evening that an unidentified passenger had survived the crash, but that could not be confirmed later Thursday. authorities said.

They were flying in the Cessna, a popular five-seat propeller plane with a good safety record. It lifted off the runway and headed west over the reservoir, following a standard flight pattern.

Barry Schiff, a retired Trans World Airlines pilot and air safety consultant, said the plane's behavior--sinking after takeoff and banking to the left--was consistent with a left engine failure. But he and the National Transportation Safety Board, which is handling the investigation, said it was too early to draw any firm conclusions.

Flores said the park was peaceful before the accident. Jet Skis and sailboats were zig-zagging across the quiet lake and the shore was dotted with families and friends enjoying the holiday.

Franco said that about 12:30 p.m., his mother, Rosa, looked up and realized something was wrong.

"She said, 'That plane is too low, and it's coming in,' " Franco said.

Witnesses said the plane started disintegrating when it clipped the tree. Small chunks of debris flew in all directions, landing among groups of people scattered along the shore, but most of the serious injuries were apparently sustained when the fuselage skidded through the crowd.

Witnesses reported that sheriff's deputies, county firefighters and a lifeguard rescue boat quickly converged on the scene. Scuba divers searched the lake to make sure there were no other victims, a sheriff's deputy said. The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board also were investigating the crash.

Several people reported a strong smell of aviation fuel, but there was no fire. Even as the injured were evacuated and the investigation began, the rest of the park and the reservoir remained open. Hundreds of people continued to celebrate and picnic on the far side of the lake.

*

Times staff writer Christina L. Esparza contributed to this report.

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