A private plane crashed onto a tennis court at the posh Newport Beach Tennis Club this morning and exploded in a huge fireball, killing as many as five people aboard and narrowly missing a tennis pro and two students.
The plane, a twin-engine Piper Aerostar from Canada, had just taken off from John Wayne Airport at 8:33 a.m. and was trying to return. The pilot was in contact with air traffic controllers at the time. Airport Manager George Rebella said it appeared the plane had lost power.
Witnesses said the plane was in a steep dive toward the tennis club, then nosed straight down apparently in an attempt to miss the clubhouse, which at that time contained an estimated 125 people. No one on the ground was injured.
Authorities did not immediately identify the dead. They said the plane was company-owned and was based in Camrose, Alberta. The flight plan showed it was headed for Pocatello, Ida., carrying two adults and three children, all members of one family. Airport officials said the plane had been serviced at the airport before taking off.
The tennis club is located in the Eastbluff residential district of the city and near a shopping center and a school.
The plane crashed onto a tennis court about 20 yards from the corner of the clubhouse where instructor Bernie Mitton was volleying with his students.
Treated for Shock
Mitton, 34, of Irvine, who was treated for shock but was otherwise unhurt, said one of his students shouted, “There’s a plane coming!” He looked up and saw the plane falling straight down.
“I started to run into a corner but it seemed like the plane just kept following me,” Mitton said.
“I ran out of the corner and within seconds it crashed and immediately exploded and burst into flames. If I had stayed in that corner I would have been dead.
“As I ran away, it exploded behind me. You could feel the intensity of the heat.”
The plane hit with such force that only a propeller cast to the side was easily recognizable as part of an airplane.
The remains of the plane lay in a mound at the corner of the tennis court, where the court’s chain-link boundary fence had been twisted and bent but had contained the wreckage like a safety net.
Miraculously, virtually none of the wreckage was thrown to the other end of court where Mitton and his students had retreated.
Pilot’s Action Told
The students, Bob and June Vermes of Irvine, said it appeared the pilot was trying to steer the falling plane away from the players.
“I think he saw us and knew that he was coming toward this building,” Bob Vermes said. “He veered into where he did and missed everybody.”
Bill Parker, owner of the tennis club, said the possibility of such a crash had been apparent to him for a long time. “Every day I see these planes take off. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of what might happen.”
He said if the crash had occurred later, all the tennis courts would have been full.
Staff Writer George Bundy Smith contributed to this story.