The fiery crash of a light plane into a jammed shopping mall claimed its fourth fatality Tuesday, while hospital officials put the injury toll at 88.
Three men on the twin-engine Beechcraft Baron died instantly when the aircraft, making its second approach to fog-shrouded Buchanan Field, slammed into the middle of the Sun Valley Mall's roof shortly after 8:30 p.m. Monday, raining flaming fuel and debris down on panicked shoppers in the gallery two levels below.
Woman Dies of Burns
A young woman who had been shopping at the mall, burned over 80% of her body, died at San Francisco General Hospital Tuesday afternoon. National Transportation Safety Board investigator Don Llorente said at a news briefing late Tuesday that the cause of the crash was not known, but added that one of the aircraft's two propellers is missing and may provide a clue to what happened.
He said that he could not be sure that the propeller was not still lodged somewhere in the mall structure and that the search for it will continue.
The air safety expert said that if the propeller had come off in flight, "It would cause considerable control difficulty" and added that whether the plane could be brought back under control "would depend on the skill and control of the crew." Llorente said the aircraft's landing lights were on, its landing gear retracted and its flaps were up when it struck the mall, which is less than a mile southwest of the airfield. In answer to a reporter's question, he said this meant that the pilot had not mistaken the mall for a runway and was not attempting to land there.
The pilot, flying on instruments in poor visibility, missed the first landing attempt and had been ordered by the Buchanan tower to go around and make another approach.
Llorente said that a "normal missed approach" would not have put the aircraft over the mall. He also said visibility was just above the minimum standard and there was no safety violation in the second attempt to land.
Seven in Critical Condition
Concord police Lt. Richard Gordy said most of the injured were given emergency treatment at Mt. Diablo Community Hospital, after which many were transferred to eight other hospitals in and around this sprawling suburban city of 105,000. Hospital officials said seven of the injured were in critical condition. Four of the critically injured are children.
The Contra Costa County sheriff-coroner's office identified those aboard the airplane as James Mountain Graham, 67, of Oakland; John Frederick Lewis, 48, also of Oakland, and Brian Ward Oliver, 23, of Alamo.
Graham was the former president of General Air Services Inc. at Buchanan Field, Lewis was an employee of the firm and Oliver a friend of Lewis, a company spokesman said.
The fourth victim, Pam Stanford, 22, of Antioch, died at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the burn ward of San Francisco General Hospital, a spokesman said.
Even as the toll was being compiled, thousands of shoppers with Christmas bundles in hand bustled through the undamaged sections of the mall, located in the center of Contra Costa County, about 35 miles east of San Francisco.
And, outside, gawkers with cameras watched and clicked shutters as federal investigators worked on the roof of the two-story, third-of-a-mile-long mall.
NTSB technicians carefully lowered some parts of the tangled wreckage on ropes, while other debris was tossed over the side. One man on the roof was photographing the wreckage and the huge gash in the roof from every possible angle. The only recognizable part of the plane was a 10-foot section of the tail, which still hung at an angle over the edge of the building.
Llorente said the wreckage will be taken to San Jose, where it will be reassembled and analyzed. He said that, unlike commercial aircraft, the general aviation Beechcraft was not required to carry "black box" recording equipment, which often provides key information in determining the cause of air crashes.
Three of the mall's four department stores were reopened Tuesday after engineers told Contra Costa County Fire Chief William Maxfield that the basic structure of the long, narrow building is sound, despite the estimated $3.5-million damage caused when the plane smashed into the roof Monday night.
The Macy's store, nearest the point where wreckage and flaming fuel spilled down, was closed. A spokesman for the 160-store mall's management said the heavily damaged central area of the building will take two to five months to repair.
Maxfield suggested that the disaster could have been anticipated.
"An aircraft crashing into Sun Valley Shopping Center two nights before Christmas, all loaded up (with shoppers) like it was--that's one nightmare we've been expecting," he told a reporter.
Buchanan Field, less than a mile from the big mall and the complex of parking structures, restaurants and other businesses surrounding it, is a county-owned airport which began as a military fighter base during World War II, when there were only scattered farmhouses in the area. The city of Concord, one terminus of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, grew up around the airport.
Before his Tuesday evening news conference, Llorente said that in looking into the crash and its cause, his agency also will re-examine plans for Pacific Southwest Airlines to begin four daily passenger flights into Buchanan Field next month.
Sunne McPeak, a member of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, said the board will review PSA's proposal for commercial flights into Buchanan at its Jan. 14 meeting.
McPeak said at a Tuesday news conference at the mall that the jets used by PSA would be safer than the smaller general aviation planes that now use the airport because the larger craft are "state of the art" and the pilots are better trained.
The start of commercial flights has been the center of controversy here for months, and citizen concern was echoed Tuesday by Lane Cayford, owner of a flower shop in the mall.
"I'm really worried about them allowing commercial flights into Buchanan," she said. "Can you imagine if a jet had crashed here?" Gordy, the Concord Police Department spokesman, recalled that a light plane crashed into an auto dealer's showroom in July, 1984, when it landed short of Buchanan Field, killing six people aboard the aircraft.
"I've been here 18 years, and I think we've had eight airplane crashes (at Buchanan) in that time," Gordy said.
It was not known who was at the controls of the Beechcraft Monday night.
NTSB investigator Wayne Pollack said the plane had been cleared by the Buchanan Field tower for an instrument landing at 8:29 p.m. Monday. Pollack said the Beechcraft, built in the 1960s, was en route from San Luis Obispo. He said the pilot failed in his first attempt to land and, on instructions from the tower, began a second approach.
There was no further radio contact with the pilot, according to Pollack, and the plane vanished from the radar screen at 8:36 p.m.
A moment later, Llorente said, the control tower operator saw the fireball as the plane plunged into the mall.
Airport Manager Harold Wight said visibility at the field itself was about three-quarters of a mile, the minimum for attempting to land there.
A Concord police officer in the parking lot told Gordy that he saw the plane smash into the center of the mall building.
"It came out of the clouds at a steep angle," he told Gordy, "and struck the building in a large fireball. . . . It looked just like a dive bomber out of a movie."
Another Concord officer, Michael Simmons, was off duty and shopping in the mall. He said the plane struck directly above him.
"I thought I was going to die," he said. "A woman standing next to me exploded in flames. . . . It was the most horrible thing I ever witnessed."
Burning fuel spewed down the escalator, melting tar, and sheets of red-hot metal fell from the roof, according to witnesses. Smoke filled the building and the lights failed. There was widespread panic among the estimated 2,000 shoppers in the mall, according to officials.
Mark A. Stein reported from Concord. Times staff writer Bob Baker in Los Angeles also contributed to this story.