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'We got a mayday!' Small plane crashes onto 405 Freeway in Orange County

A small twin-engine airplane burst into flames as it crash-landed on the 405 Freeway in Santa Ana on Friday morning shortly after taking off from John Wayne Airport.

In a frantic call to the airport’s control tower, the pilot of a Cessna 310 told controllers he had lost power in his right engine and was trying to land as the aircraft swooped low over buildings and the freeway.

“Hey, we got a mayday! We got a mayday!” the pilot said, according to a recording obtained at LiveATC.net, a website that streams and archives air traffic control audio.

The tower told the pilot he was cleared to land but then told him, “Your gear appears to be up.”

“Yeah, I know. We’re still trying to get a little altitude,” the pilot said, his voice strained. “I lost my right engine.”

Barely a minute later, the aircraft slammed into the freeway. Video from the scene showed the aircraft bursting into flames and a tall plume of black smoke rising into the air.

A husband and wife in their late 50s or early 60s were pulled from the burning aircraft by an off-duty firefighter from Avalon, authorities said. Both were rushed to Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana, the closest trauma center to the airport.

Neither their names, nor their conditions have been released.

The plane had just taken off from John Wayne Airport when the pilot declared an emergency, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA. The pilot was trying to return to the airport when the crash occurred.

A witness, Dana Stimson, said she and her husband were driving south on the 405 Freeway and merging with the 55 Freeway when she saw a small plane take off. Suddenly it banked sharply to the right and began losing altitude.

She saw the plane “above me looking as if it was about to roll,” Stimson said. “It favored its right side.”

When she saw the aircraft begin to sway “to and fro,” she knew the pilot was in trouble, she said. “I told my husband it’s going down.”

The plane struck a divider in the southbound 405 — just north of MacArthur Boulevard — and began burning around 9:30 a.m., the CHP said.

“The fire burned the airplane like a toy in less than five minutes,” said Nga Dieu, who was riding in the southbound 405 with her husband and three daughters.

A video that Dieu made of the crash shows the plane engulfed in flames as two people appear to be dragging one of the victims away from the crash. One person was holding onto the victim’s legs and the other person held the victim’s shoulders.

The plane crashed short of the airport runway, Gregor said. All arrivals to John Wayne Airport were closed temporarily, but since have reopened, airport officials said. Departures were not affected.

A plane crash on a busy freeway could have been much worse, said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Larry Kurtz. “The fact a plane can crash-land on the freeway and only strike one vehicle is extraordinary,” he said.

At least four vehicles were slightly damaged, but no motorists were injured, authorities said.

“It’s just so scary,” Liane Lynch said as she eyed the crash site from a nearby office building. “I can’t imagine the shock of driving and seeing the plane go down in your rearview mirror.”

The northbound lanes of the 405 were reopened by 10:15 a.m., and traffic was flowing normally.

The plane was manufactured in 1975 and registered to Twin Props LLC in Santa Ana, FAA records show.

The crash kept the 405 Freeway’s southbound lanes closed for hours. Authorities said they hoped to reopen the freeway around 5 p.m. Friday.

Office workers and motorists were immediately drawn to the scene of the plane crash.

“It sounded like a car crash. Then we heard all these sirens, and we just looked out and could see all the smoke,” said Brad Schaeffer, 24, who works about two blocks from the crash site. “We walked over and saw people rushing over.”

Traffic on the northbound 405 slowed to a crawl for hours as drivers eyeballed the wreckage and fire crews.

Saul Pantaleon said he was on his lunch break when he decided to drive a few blocks to get a better look. He said he often takes his kids to the parking lot adjacent to the freeway to watch the planes land.

“I think about it sometimes when I see the planes flying over” the freeway, he said. “What would it be like if something like this happened?”

At a news conference hours after the crash, the off-duty Avalon firefighter, John Meffert, told reporters that he was driving home to pick up his family for a Palm Springs vacation when the aircraft's wing scraped across the hood of his truck.

"I was in shock, like 'This thing just hit me,' " said the Rancho Santa Margarita resident.

Wearing just shorts, a T-shirt and sandals, he immediately pulled over and rushed to pull the man and woman out of the burning plane.

Authorities called his actions heroic, although Meffert is reluctant to accept the title of hero.

"I think any of us would hopefully help out others," he said. "We need a world where we help out others. I just happened to be there."

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Twitter: VeronicaRochaLA

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UPDATES:

4:15 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Meffert.

2:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Dieu, Stimson and public safety officials.

12:35 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the pilot’s call to the control tower.

12:10 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Lynch, Pantaleon and Global Medical Center.

11:15 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Gregor and Kurtz.

10:50 a.m.: This article was updated with a witness account.

10:20 a.m.: This article was updated with details on the plane and disruptions at John Wayne Airport.

This article was originally published at 10:10 a.m.

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