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Thousands See Deadly Plane Crash : Accident: Spectators were on hand to watch inaugural flight of new transport. Three in another aircraft die when it smashes into Lakewood building. Four on ground are injured.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several thousand spectators awaiting the takeoff of a new McDonnell Douglas transport aircraft watched in horror Saturday as a small plane crashed near Long Beach Municipal Airport, killing all three people aboard and injuring four on the ground.

The single-engine Cessna 210 crashed into a one-story industrial building in Lakewood shortly after takeoff at 12:27 p.m, authorities said. Witnesses said the plane’s engine sputtered and then failed before the aircraft plowed into the building and burst into flames.

“Everyone suddenly was quiet,” said Chi Lin, an engineering analyst for McDonnell Douglas. “It was a very solemn moment.”

The inaugural flight of the C-17 air lifter was canceled later in the afternoon because of cloudy skies.

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Tony Cortez, a McDonnell Douglas assembly line worker who photographed the plane’s nose dive into the industrial area, said scores of stunned spectators rushed to the crash site.

“Everyone was in shock,” Cortez said. “When the fireball appeared, everyone just started running.”

Authorities identified the dead--who were severely burned--as two women and a man, but withheld their names pending notification of relatives. Officials at the scene said the aircraft was believed to be on a practice flight, but they said they had no other information about its flight plan.

Coroner and fire officials combed the wreckage for an additional victim Saturday afternoon after witnesses reported seeing a fourth person on board. Authorities at the scene said no other bodies were found.

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No one was inside the machine shop and lamp business where the plane crashed, authorities said, but four people, including a postal worker delivering mail, received minor injuries as they fled the inferno.

“We can be thankful it was a Saturday,” said Inspector Barry Nugent of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “If it was on a weekday, most of these (businesses) would have had people in them. The engine of the plane ended up right next to a secretary’s chair.”

Three of the injured were treated at the scene by paramedics, and one was taken to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, authorities said.

Robert Jarvis, 33, of High Grove, Calif., was treated at the hospital for cuts and bruises to his legs and was released, authorities said. Jarvis was hurt while trying to scale a barbed-wire fence just yards from where the plane crashed, said Long Beach Fire Department spokesman Bob Caldon.

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The four-seat aircraft had taken off from the Long Beach airport and had climbed about 200 feet when it had engine trouble, witnesses said. The pilot veered the plane to the right, apparently trying to return to the runway about 100 yards away, when the engine failed, witnesses said.

“It happened so fast,” said Chris Reddington, an off-duty sheriff’s deputy who was parked about 100 yards away with his wife. “He had just put up the landing gear. It seemed like he was having trouble gaining altitude. Then it started to sputter. The engine died before he hit the building.”

Nugent said the plane rapidly lost altitude over the row of single-story industrial buildings, catching its right wing on a garage door at 3740 Industry Ave. The plane then crashed into the office area of an adjoining machine shop and erupted into flames, he said.

The aircraft’s engine and propeller separated from the plane and continued to cut through the building, he said. The fuselage, where the three bodies were found, collapsed into a pile of rubble outside the building, he said.

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“It doesn’t look like they had a chance,” Nugent said. Long Beach and county fire officials extinguished the blaze in about 15 minutes, authorities said.

Tony Lockhart, a McDonnell Douglas engineer from Anaheim, was one of scores of onlookers who captured the crash on video. Lockhart, and his wife, Pam, a McDonnell Douglas secretary, were waiting in the company’s nearby parking lot for the C-17 flight.

“As soon as it started to have trouble I turned on the camera,” said Lockhart. “Everyone rushed over to the fence. People were just saying, ‘Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe it.’ ”

Investigators from the National Transportation and Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration arrived at the crash site Saturday afternoon to determine its cause. According to preliminary estimates, the building and its contents sustained $126,000 in damage, authorities said.

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A spokesman for McDonnell Douglas said the crash was not a factor in the decision to cancel the maiden flight of the C-17, the long-awaited military cargo jet built for the Air Force. Engineers wanted to avoid launching the jet in less-than-ideal weather conditions, he said. The flight was rescheduled for today between noon and 3 p.m., pending improved weather conditions.


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