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Light Planes Collide; Fall Into Ocean

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Four people were killed when two single-engine planes collided in midair and crashed Sunday afternoon in the waters off the Long Beach breakwater, about a mile south of the Queen Mary, authorities said.

The 3:26 p.m. collision between a four-seat Cessna 172 and a Piper Turbo Arrow, also a four-seater, was witnessed by people aboard at least two vessels in the area, including a U.S. Coast Guard craft on routine maneuvers, Long Beach Fire Department spokesman Bob Caldon said.

One of the boats was able to drop a buoy near the Cessna crash site. That marker guided rescue crafts, which were dispatched by the Long Beach marine and fire departments, to the site about 400 yards west of the Long Beach lighthouse, Caldon said.

The bodies of two men--ages 21 and 50--were pulled from the Piper that had crashed inside the Long Beach Harbor breakwater, Caldon said. The 50-year-old was believed to be the pilot, authorities said. The victims were not identified, pending notification of relatives.

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Frank Gennaro, a Downey plumber, and his son Franco, 17, were fishing aboard their 21-foot cabin cruiser just outside the breakwater when they saw the two planes in the air.

“They looked like they were doing stunts,” said Gennaro, 44. “I thought they must have been from the Queen Mary or something. All of a sudden the prop from one plane chopped the wing off the other one. There was no explosion, no fire.”

Gennaro said the Cessna, with only one wing left, “just sank--rapidly. Other debris fell into the water. We rushed over hoping to God there might be survivors. Nothing.”

Waning light and poor underwater visibility forced divers to call off their efforts late Sunday to recover two bodies from the Cessna that fell outside the breakwater, Caldon said. The search is to resume at dawn today. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident.

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“Visibility has been the biggest problem,” Caldon said. “Divers can’t see three feet in front of themselves because of red-tide conditions. They’re just groping down there.”

Caldon said the Piper went down south of Pier J, and “the water there is about 60 feet deep,” he said. “We sent several rescue boats to the scene and put divers into the water.”

Caldon said there was very little debris visible, except “an oil slick and some paper floating on the surface.”

At least a dozen divers, from Los Angeles and Long Beach rescue agencies, searched the waters for wreckage and victims, he said. The effort was “like finding a needle in a haystack for them, since they could only see the length of their arm,” Caldon said.

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Divers also found some landing gear, including two tires, said Kristine Johnson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Gennaro said that an armrest, a steering wheel, papers, maps and other debris floated to the surface.

Times staff writer Ed Boyer contributed to this story.


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