Collision over Corona leaves five dead

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Five people were killed Sunday afternoon when two small planes collided over Corona and debris rained down on a busy commercial strip of auto dealerships, authorities said.

Four of the victims of the 3:35 p.m. accident were aboard the two aircraft that crashed about a mile from Corona Municipal Airport, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The other was killed on the ground by debris that fell from the aircraft, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The cause of the accident, which occurred under clear skies, was not immediately known, NTSB investigator Wayne Pollack told reporters at a late-night news conference. The names of the dead were not released Sunday night.

"The severity of the impact is fairly high," Pollack said.

FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said preliminary reports indicate that both aircraft were single-engine planes. One was identified as a two-seat Cessna 150; the other, a Cessna 172.

Pollack said two of the occupants of the Cessna 150 were ejected after the collision, one landing on a used car and the other landing in a lot. The two occupants of the other aircraft were found inside its wreckage at a Nissan dealership.

Witness Doug Champion said he was pulling into a supermarket parking lot just before the accident when he saw the two aircraft a mile or so away on the horizon.

"They looked like they would run into each other," said the off-duty Orange County sheriff's deputy. Champion thought it might be an optical illusion -- that the two planes might look close but actually be at different altitudes.

An instant later, however, he saw the northbound plane strike the other aircraft, Champion said.

It reminded him of an automobile collision. "It was almost like what you see in a T-bone traffic accident if someone runs a red light," he said.

"There was no explosion or fire" he said. "They just hit, broke up and fell from the sky."

Another witness, Lourdes Fajardo, said she was passing the dealerships when she saw the two planes just before they collided.

The impact destroyed one plane and left the other with its wings clipped, spiraling to the ground, she said.

"I saw the planes hit," Fajardo said, her voice cracking with emotion. "And when you see one disintegrate and the other go straight down with no wings . . . " she said, unable to continue.

Distraught, Fajardo drove home immediately, then, regaining her composure, returned to the accident scene and spoke to investigators.

Hours later, the images of the planes and the victims haunted her.

"To think they were alive and then they were gone," she said, choking up.

Debris from the collision landed on automobile dealerships in the 2500 block of Wardlow Road, according to authorities.

At an evening briefing, Corona police said most of the debris was scattered near the dealerships in an area 300 yards long by 300 yards wide. A second debris site was located about 1,000 yards from the car dealerships.

At Corona Nissan, salesman Pete Argueta said he was in his office looking out at Wardlow Road when he saw a sales manager and four or five other men dashing for cover, screaming: "Run! Run! Run!"

"I thought they were playing," said Argueta, 41. "But then I saw small debris falling and . . . something fall into one of our used vehicles."

The debris that landed at his dealership included the cockpit of one plane, with someone dead inside, he said. "Seeing the aftermath was pretty gruesome," he said.

At the Chevrolet dealership across the road, an employee who identified herself only as Yvonne said she was told that a colleague was killed by a plane debris that crashed through a roof.

She said employees at the dealership tried in vain to free their co-worker from the debris but that he was already dead.

The NTSB's Pollack said part of the cockpit, propeller and control panel were found in the wreckage that crashed through the roof of the Chevrolet dealership.

An emergency dispatcher in Corona estimated that as many as 40 police and fire vehicles were sent to the scene.

Over the past decade, there have been a number of other accidents not far from the airfield.

In December 2003, four people were killed in two separate crashes, one of them about 200 yards after takeoff and the other in Chino Hills State Park. Several months earlier, the pilot of a small aircraft was killed shortly after departing the airport en route to Santa Monica.

In February 1999, four firefighters were killed on their way to a skiing vacation when their plane crashed just after takeoff into a hillside in Chino Hills. And in March 1998, three people were killed when two light planes planning to land at Chino Airport collided in a fireball 3,000 feet over a residential area.

Without assessing a cause for Sunday's accident, Pollack noted that the airport has no flight control tower. "It's considered to be an uncontrolled airport," he told reporters.

Times photographer Karen Tapia-Andersen and research librarian Robin Mayper contributed to this report.

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