Delmy Pennington was working at her cafe at Riverside Municipal Airport on Monday afternoon when she noticed a small plane struggling to take off amid heavy rain.
“It looked like the airplane didn’t start right, something was wrong,” said Pennington, co-owner of the D&D Airport Cafe.
The five people in the Cessna T310Q, who officials said were returning to San Jose after attending a cheerleading competition at Disney’s California Adventure, came back to the terminal before giving takeoff another try. They sat down at Pennington’s cafe, and she offered them menus and silverware.
After it stopped raining, the group returned to the plane, this time finally taking off. But Pennington said she was concerned about what she saw: The back of the plane shaking.
“It looked to me like it was hitting the floor,” Pennington said of the airplane’s tail. She said she had never seen that happen before, even though she has watched “thousands of airplanes” take off from the airport.
Moments later, at 4:40 p.m., the plane crashed into a Riverside neighborhood, causing a large fire that destroyed one home and damaged several others.
A man, woman and teenage girl on board the plane were killed, and two other women were critically injured.
On Tuesday, investigators tried to piece together why the plane crashed, while residents of the neighborhood surveyed the damage.
Authorities have yet to publicly identify the plane’s occupants or who was flying the aircraft.
“The plane itself is in quite a few pieces” scattered over a 150-foot debris field, said Stephen Stein, an air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
Firefighters described an intense battle to contain the fire, which was fueled in part by the Cessna’s full tank. Debris was scattered across front lawns as far as half a mile away from the crash, Riverside Fire Chief Michael Moore said.
Riverside police Officer Ryan Railsback said one person was in the home where the plane crashed but was able to get out unharmed.
It’s “very remarkable that nobody else was injured. There are parts of this airplane that kind of spread out along the whole street,” he said.
Four houses were damaged as a result of the crash; two of them were red-tagged.
Daniel Hernandez had been readying to go out for the evening when he heard a loud blast.
Looking out the window, he saw his next-door neighbors’ house engulfed in flames. He ran out and watched in shock as a man came running out.
"It's a tragedy," 22-year-old Hernandez said, as he stood outside the yellow police tape that surrounded parts of his neighborhood Tuesday. "I'm just so sorry for the lives that were lost."
Firefighters who rushed to the scene found one home fully ablaze and another partially on fire. As they searched one of the homes, a fire captain heard moaning coming from inside a bedroom.
A woman who had been in the plane had been ejected and was covered in debris. Firefighters quickly dug into the debris to free her and passed her through a window to others waiting outside, said Riverside Fire Capt. Tyler Reynolds.
The woman survived, although she suffered third-degree burns over 90% of her body, fire officials said.
The survivors were women in their late 30s or early 40s, authorities said.
It wasn’t known whether the victims were members of the same family, although the teenage victim might have had family members onboard, Reynolds said.
Neighborhood residents helped pull one of the survivors to a safe location, Reynolds said.
“I want to thank the community of this neighborhood for allowing the firefighters to get in, perform these rescues, protect life and protect property,” Reynolds said. “Unfortunately, again, it was a tragic incident.”
Mark Scheck’s home was one of those hit by the plane, although he said a neighbor’s home appeared to have taken the brunt of the crash. Scheck, his wife and their three children were not home at the time.
Scheck had lived in his home about five years with his wife, 7-year-old sons and 10-year-old daughter. The family was accustomed to the planes that came and went from the nearby airport.
“I was more concerned about a train derailment, because we’re right by the train tracks,” Scheck said. “That’s what I was more worried about, not a plane falling from the sky.”
Scheck and his family have been staying at his parents’ home since. A GoFundMe page has been started to help raise funds for the family.
“What do you do for something like this? It just boggles my mind,” Scheck said. “Who do you reach out to? I don’t know what to do.”
Those on the plane had spent part of the weekend at Disney California Adventure, which was hosting the Jr. USA Nationals cheerleading competition for girls under 15. The competition drew students from elementary and middle schools from around the state.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims," the organization said in a statement.
Times staff writers Joseph Serna, Cindy Chang and Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.
3:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the NTSB.
1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from residents.
11:20 a.m.: This article was updated with details from a Riverside Fire Department captain.
This article was originally published at 10:15 a.m.