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4 Families' Outings Lead to a Tragedy

Crash: Engine problems are suspected in the San Dimas accident, which killed two men in the plane and two children on the ground.

July 06, 2002|RICHARD WINTON, ANTHONY McCARTNEY and NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

From the sky came the enveloping roar, survivors said Friday. From the pine-trimmed picnic tables, they saw disaster coming.

Army Reserve helicopter pilot and real estate agent Michael Brand had radioed three maydays after takeoff. He was struggling to keep his Cessna airborne. It was also carrying Michael Adler, a friend and plumbing contractor.

At the park below, 17,000 people had gathered by noon on the Fourth of July. The just arrived Ngo-Ton family had planted fishing rods in the bank of Puddingstone Reservoir and unpacked the barbecue at a shoreline site.

Jackie Ngo-Ton, 12, eagerly awaiting the start of her first cheerleading camp in a few days, held Brendan Truong, the 16-month-old son of family friends.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 21 inches; 763 words Type of Material: Correction
Plane crash victim--A Saturday story in the California section about a plane crash in San Dimas that left four people dead incorrectly stated that one of those killed in the aircraft, Michael Alder, was a Mormon. Alder grew up in a Mormon family but left the church 20 years ago and was active in Grace Church of Glendora.
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Then the plane fell from the sky, showering the crowd with debris. Bystanders would lift the wing off Jackie and the toddler, who were killed, as were the two men in the plane.

In that instant, the lives of four Southern California families--plus those of 12 people who were injured--were indelibly linked.

Some tweaks of fate and it might have ended differently for the immigrant families: Jackie had almost gone shopping with her mother that day. And the Ngo-Ton and Truong parents might have been killed too, had they not been moving a smoking barbecue away from a windy shoreside spot, where their children were playing.

As the fathers of the two dead children prepared to bury them in graves side by side, investigators examined the wreckage and sought to reconstruct what had led to the crash at the lip of the reservoir, which anchors the Frank G. Bonelli Regional County Park in San Dimas.

The day had begun with the promise of fun and a sunny holiday.

A tall flagpole stands in front of Michael Brand's house in Glendora, and the American flag was raised in honor of the nation's birthday. A neighbor across the street raised a flag as well.

Brand, 44, a father of three, was cheerful and helpful, the kind who "makes it a good neighborhood," said the neighbor, Jeff Smith.

Randy Wise, another neighbor who described himself as one of Brand's best friends, said Brand had been like a magician, always able to pull something out of the hat to help a friend.

After Smith bought a chocolate Labrador, Brand showed up at his house with a book on raising that breed of dog.

"Any time you need anything," Smith said, "he's there for you."

About 10 a.m. Thursday, Brand left his home for Brackett Field in La Verne. A little earlier, he had called and invited Alder to join him.

The veteran pilot, who flew helicopters and planes alike, only three months earlier had acquired a Cessna 310, a popular twin-engine prop plane that seats five.

He planned to pick up his wife, Deborah, later in the day, so they could watch fireworks from the sky.

Alder, 49, who lived with his wife, Cindy, and their four children in Glendora, was active in the Mormon Church, a neighbor said. His father, Reed Alder, had been a prominent doctor before recently retiring his San Dimas practice, and Alder owned a plumbing business.

According to Federal Aviation Administration records, Alder had a pilot's license, though his certified him to fly only single-engine planes.

About a month ago, Cindy Alder said Friday, the same plane had given her husband and Brand a scare.

The landing gear failed to work as they were about to touch down. After a few tries, the gear eventually deployed, and Alder said a technician thoroughly checked the plane afterward for other problems.

Cindy Alder said Brand, with whom she worked at Century 21, was a good pilot.

"We had full confidence in his flying," she said, adding that she believed Brand would have done "everything possible" to prevent the tragedy.

While Brand and Alder were at the airfield, 18 people from four families, including the Truongs of El Monte and Ngo-Tons of La Mirada, gathered for their Fourth of July picnic at Bonelli Park, about a mile away.

Normally, Kelvin Truong opens his Los Angeles furniture store every day, including July 4. His family usually celebrates at home, setting off fireworks at night.

This year, he said, he decided to shutter the shop, accepting a friend's invitation to take his wife and two sons to the park. The families specifically went because of the options--swimming, fishing and rides--that their children would have for play, Truong said.

He said he had decided to go because Brendan was curious and active and liked the outdoors.

They planned to go for just a few hours, Truong said. About 4 p.m., they planned to head home for their traditional holiday fireworks.

Along with the Truongs was the Ngo-Tran family. Carol Ngo, Jackie's mother, offered to take the girl shopping. But Jackie, who was known as a cutup who loved to laugh and make jokes, wanted to go to the picnic with her father's friends from work. Her father, Nghlem Ngo-Ton, worked for Kelvin Truong.

The Ngo-Ton and Truong families had been at the park barely 30 minutes when other park visitors noticed a plane coming from the east.

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