Plane Slams Into Valley Home : Pilot Dies; Residence Destroyed

Times Staff Writers

A twin-engine light plane, apparently en route to Van Nuys Airport, crashed into a Sepulveda home Wednesday night and exploded, killing the pilot and destroying the house.

Ken Ashton was inside his house at 9545 Ruffner Ave. eating french fries and watching a "Star Trek" rerun on television, when the Piper Aerostar smashed into the structure.

Both the wreckage and the home quickly exploded into flames, but Ashton escaped with barely a scratch.

'Everything Turned Orange'

"I'm lucky to be alive," Ashton marveled, a short time later after treatment for a few small head cuts at Granada Hills Community Hospital.

"It happened real fast," he recalled. "I was sitting on a couch in the corner (of the living room) when I heard an engine roar, real loud. Then, bang, there was dust everywhere, the ceiling fell in and there was an explosion. Everything turned orange.

"The French windows had been blown out and I just jumped out through them and the house went up in flames. It was instantaneous."

Ashton, 38, a nuclear medicine technician at Encino Hospital, said he lost everything. There were no other people in the house at the time.

By the time firefighters put out the flames, all that remained of the house were a few smoking outer walls and the charred hulks of a sedan and a pickup truck that had been parked in the garage and driveway. Damage was estimated at $125,000 by Los Angeles Fire Department officials.

One body, presumed to be that of the pilot, was found in the ashes of the plane, Fire Department Battalion Chief Ted O'Miela said.

The body was not immediately identified.

House, Plane Incinerated

There was a possibility that the remains of any passengers in the plane could be buried in the rubble, O'Miela said. The house and aircraft were incinerated by the intense heat of the burning magnesium and aluminum of the plane's fuselage.

Firefighters were waiting for the embers to cool before searching the area.

A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, Dick Hallen, said the pilot had radioed the control tower at Van Nuys Airport shortly before the crash, reporting engine trouble.

The plane, a light transport designed to carry six passengers in addition to pilot and co-pilot, was based at Van Nuys.

It had taken off about noon from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, but it was not known where the plane was returning from when it crashed, Hallen said.

Dick Butala, 49, who lives four houses away from the crash site, said he was walking his two dogs when "I heard the sputtering of an engine," looked up and saw the plane just about to strike Ashton's house.

"The engine stopped, and then the plane went straight into the house. It just dropped on top of the house.

"There was a big burst of flames," Butala said, and the street shook from the explosion. "It sounded like someone had dropped a bomb."

Flames '150 Feet High'

"The flames were at least 150 feet high," said Janet Greenhalgh, 17, who lives next door to Ashton.

"I've often worried about planes crashing here," Butala said. "We're right in the flight path."

"I've just been waiting for this to happen," said another neighbor, Fred Wilkin, 63, complaining about the airport traffic.

"We've all been concerned about this for years," said another neighbor, David Guzman.

"The airport was there a long time before I bought the house," Wilkin said. "You've got to live with it. You've got to put up with the noise and the possibility of accidents."

Neighboring House Saved

Fire Department spokesman Pat Patterson called it miraculous that firefighters were able to save the Greenhalgh house next door. Firefighters put up a "wall of water" between the two buildings to prevent the intense heat of the burning plane from igniting the neighboring house, he said.

Ashton, a nuclear medicine technician at Encino Hospital, said he lost everything in the fire but the clothes he was wearing.

"I didn't even get my wallet," he said.

Ashton said he planned to spend the night with friends in Reseda.

Asked whether he would live in the same place if he can rebuild the house, he replied: "I don't know. I really have to think about that one."

Also contributing to this story were Times Staff Writers Greg Braxton and Nieson Himmel.

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