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Two Killed as Plane Crashes, Burns in Apartment Building

June 07, 2003|Eric Malnic and Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writers

A light plane that had just taken off from Santa Monica Airport crashed nose-first Friday through the roof and two floors of an apartment building in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, killing the pilot and another person and igniting a fire that forced at least two people to leap from the building.

Neighbors, gardeners working nearby, a coach from nearby Fairfax High School and an Orthodox Jewish volunteer rescue team rushed to help as residents struggled to flee the flames.

"I saw this plane coming down like a kamikaze, spinning slowly, like a top, as it came straight down," said a witness, James Vickman, 43, who lives several blocks away.

The plane dove through the top floor of the three-story, 14-unit complex in the 600 block of north Spaulding Avenue, burying itself in the building's basement parking garage. Flames mushroomed through the roof, and the center of the structure collapsed.

The cause of the 3:55 p.m. crash was not known, but officials said there was no evidence that terrorism was involved. Nonetheless, FBI and other terrorism experts were called in to aid in the investigation.

Authorities did not identify the two people who died, and it was unclear whether the second fatality had been aboard the plane or in the building. Seven were injured, one critically.

Officials said the plane, a six-seat Beechcraft Bonanza, had taken off from the airport, about seven miles west of the crash site, at 3:45 p.m. for a flight to Sun Valley, Idaho.

Controllers in the airport tower told the pilot to contact the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in San Diego for further guidance, but the pilot never did so, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board began searching the wreckage Friday night for clues.

Shane Cox, Fairfax High School's head football coach, was about 30 minutes into a spring training practice on an athletic field full of 100 students when he heard what he thought was a helicopter. He looked up in time to see a white plane plunging toward the ground.

"It was coming down. I thought it was going to hit us or the cafeteria, where an ESL banquet was being held," Cox said. "All this transpired within three seconds. The plane just crashed vertically into the apartment. The last thing I saw was the tail descending into the building and then smoke, fire, a whole bunch of dust and debris just shot up in the air."

As his athletes ran from the direction of the crash site, about 25 yards away from where they had been running drills, Cox joined neighbors and area workers running toward the fire.

Aron Mushkin, 88, was in his second-floor apartment when the plane hit.

"I was sleeping in the bed and it was like a bomb went off," he said. "Fire, glass, big smoke!" Confused, Mushkin said he sat on his bed and waited for a few minutes, then started putting on his shoes. He needs help walking, however, and could not get out of the room himself. So he sat back down on the bed and waited.

Casey Cunningham, 25, was sitting on his living room couch watching a History Channel special on D-day, when a fireball ripped through the room. The plane came in diagonally and tore through his top-floor apartment and a neighbor's unit before crashing into the apartment beneath them, he told his wife, Andrea Cunningham, 29. She was at her job as a waitress at the time of the crash.

When the living room caught fire, he ran into the bedroom which was still clear of smoke. He was at the window ready to jump, he told his wife, but people on the ground below were urging him to wait. Another resident was jumping from his window and nobody was available to catch him.

Los Angeles Fire Chief William Bamattre said the remnants of the plane came to rest in the building's first-floor parking area. "It went through the two living levels and came to rest on the concrete," he said. "[The plane is] pretty much disintegrated. It's in a pile of rubble."

Flames from the crash triggered a two-alarm fire and firefighters arrived minutes later. Coach Cox and others were already working to help people trapped.

Among them were Hatzolah volunteers, trained emergency medical technicians who work on a volunteer basis. They sped in cars to the crash, despite the prohibition on driving on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

Shmuel Manne, 35, a computer technician in his daytime job, treated a neighbor standing near the scene of the fire who had a seizure on the street.

In the apartment building, one woman screamed from a second-story window: "Please catch me," said documentary filmmaker Craig Weaver.

Although he had grabbed a blanket and his dog's bed to cushion the fall, he didn't have the chance to use them. "I just told her to jump," Weaver said. He and a few other people held out their arms, he said, and "we just caught her with our hands."

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