Last Message Unheeded in Mall Crash--Investigator

Associated Press

The experienced pilot of a plane that crashed into a mall filled with Christmas shoppers never acknowledged a message urging him to seek radar assistance while landing in fog, a federal investigator reported.

Four people died and at least 74 were hospitalized after the Beechcraft Baron slammed through the roof of a Macy’s at Sun Valley Mall, raining melted roofing tar and flaming aviation fuel on the panicked crowd below. Nine victims of Monday night’s tragedy remained in critical condition Wednesday.

The plane missed an approach to fog-shrouded Buchanan Field and had been advised by flight controllers to contact nearby Travis Air Force Base for radar assistance, according to Don Llorente, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator.

The pilot never answered the message and crashed 10 to 20 seconds later at the mall, less than a mile from Buchanan Field but a half-mile off the standard aborted-landing maneuver, Llorente said.

Routine to Ask

The airport manager, Hal Wight, said it was routine for planes landing in the fog to ask for radar assistance from the Air Force base 20 miles away because Buchanan Field has no radar.


The ill-fated plane’s pilot, James Mountain Graham, 67, of Oakland, was the former president of an aviation company based at Buchanan and flew into the airport at least once a week.

“He was an excellent pilot,” fellow pilot Tom Bruerton said. “He knows every inch of Contra Costa County. It’s incomprehensible to me that the accident could have been pilot error.”

But Mark Feldman, chief instructor at Pacific State Aviation at Buchanan, said the thick, low fog that limited visibility to three-quarters of a mile “would tax the average airline pilot. . . . He would have had his hands full.”

Concern for Propeller

Llorente had said Tuesday evening that his team was unable to find the second propeller from the twin-engine plane, raising the possibility it fell off before crashing.

“We usually find everything at the site,” he said then.

However, mall security officers found the missing propeller Wednesday wedged between an information booth and a stroller rental concession, police Lt. Richard Gordy said, adding that federal investigators would resume their search today for the cause of the tragedy.

The accident has also generated new concern about a plan by Pacific Southwest Airlines to start commercial jet passenger service at the airport, which opened in 1946 when the now-bustling city of Concord was a farm town with 4,000 residents.

Llorente said his agency would review the plans as it investigates the crash, and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) urged the Federal Aviation Administration to bar the new service until the investigation is complete. Contra Costa County Supervisor Sunne McPeak said the supervisors will review the safety of PSA’s plans Jan. 14.

Pilot for 50 Years

Graham, a Navy flier in World War II who had been a pilot for nearly 50 years, died on impact along with his two passengers, who were identified by the county coroner’s office as John Frederick Lewis, 48, of Oakland, and Brian Ward Oliver, 23, of Alamo, a nearby community. Lewis had been a Red Cross volunteer and the agency, unaware that he was in the crash, called his home Monday night to see if he could help at the mall.

The fourth fatality, Pamela Stanford, 22, of Antioch, another nearby community, died Christmas Eve after suffering burns over 80% of her body. She had gone to the mall to pick up her wedding ring and to shop for last-minute gifts for her fiance. Stanford was to be married Feb. 1.

Gordy said area hospitals reported treating 80 people in connection with the crash, but noted the list might include some patients transferred from one hospital to another. An independent check of the hospitals showed 74 injuries, exclusive of transfers.

Fourteen people, including the nine in critical condition, remained hospitalized Wednesday.

Seven in Berkeley Hospital

Seven of the critical patients were at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. Dr. Jerrold Z. Kaplan, director of the hospital’s burn unit, said the heavily sedated patients must undergo extremely painful treatments. On a scale of one to 10, the pain “probably rates an 11 or 12,” he said.