A small private jet tumbled from the sky Saturday afternoon, crashed through the roof of a warehouse and burst into flames, killing the three people aboard and sending more than 80 weekend employees of the adjacent manufacturing complex fleeing.
The four-seat, twin-engine Paris Jet Morane Sauliner 760 took off from John Wayne Airport about 1 p.m., airport spokeswoman Pat Ware said, but the pilot sent a distress message just moments into the flight and tried to turn back.
Airport emergency crews were alerted and waited for a possible crash landing, but the bright yellow French-built jet never made it, Ware said.
Instead, the aircraft plummeted into the Baxter Healthcare Corp. complex about a mile north of the airport, within blocks of the Costa Mesa Freeway, and burned on impact. No one on the ground was injured, officials said, but the plane's occupants had no chance of escape.
"There wasn't any opportunity for anyone to survive that fire, which was fueled by jet fuel," Orange County Fire Division Chief Rich Witesman said.
Coroner's investigators identified two of the victims as Orange County residents: David R. Hughes, 57, of Cypress; and Tina Schroder, 37, of Newport Beach. Officials said Schroder was a member of the Amelia Earhart 99 Club, a group of female aviators.
The third victim, the pilot and owner of the plane, was identified as Air Force Sgt. David Brooks Covell, 48, stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.
All three were licensed pilots, coroner's supervisor Rick McAnally said.
Two of the victims were found in the cockpit while the third victim was apparently ejected in the crash, Orange County fire officials said.
Officials of the National Transportation Safety Board were on the scene almost immediately to investigate the crash, but would not comment on preliminary findings or speculate on a possible cause.
Witnesses said the plane came in low and fast, bursting into flames as it smashed through the roof of a warehouse in the Baxter complex.
The industrial park in the 1400 block of McGaw Avenue comprises half a dozen buildings, including a factory that employs about 350 people in the manufacture of artificial heart valves.
The fire that engulfed the plane touched off a blaze that caused heavy damage to a 20-by-30-foot storage facility. Firefighters had the flames under control within an hour.
No employees were in the immediate area of the crash, said Randal Woodgruff, vice president of manufacturing for Baxter, a global health-care company based in Deerfield, Ill.
Because the plane crashed during a shift change, dozens of workers leaving and entering the buildings witnessed the tragedy.
"I heard a loud explosion, and everybody ran, and the alarm sounded," said Van Vu, a 26-year-old Garden Grove resident who works in an assembly facility next to the crash site. "It was really scary."
Another employee, Phuong Nguyen, 27, of Garden Grove, said she was leaving work when she heard the drone of the plane and saw it skimming the rooftops.
"It was really loud because it was so close," Nguyen said. "But I don't think I saw any smoke."
Ivan Nguyen, a stock worker at nearby Physician Sales Service, said the plane "dropped like a rock out of the sky. When it hit, the earth shook like an earthquake."
Hoping to rescue any survivors, Nguyen and a friend climbed to the warehouse roof, but the aircraft had already plunged into the structure.
The roof, made of highly flammable light foam insulation and plywood, caved in and burned rapidly. The collision also set off the building's sprinkler system, causing a mixture of leaking fuel and water to spread.
That volatile mixture hampered early efforts of the 100 firefighters on the scene, officials said. "It tore a chunk of the roof out . . . and that just kept the fire raging," Witesman said.
The plane crashed at a 45-degree angle, severing a wing that landed in a computer room adjoining the warehouse. The fuselage landed in a storage area containing cardboard and paper items, which also fed the flames, officials said.
Witness Chris Hopkins said he was playing golf at a nearby course when he saw the small craft dip and spiral downward. He said he heard "a high-pitched noise and saw the plane nose dive. It tilted to one side and then just capsuled toward us and corkscrewed down."
Hopkins telephoned for help, then rushed to the scene. By the time he arrived, teams of police and firefighters were already at work, he said later as he watched smoke billowing from the wreckage.
Officials at John Wayne said the airport was closed immediately after the crash and all flights diverted while investigators assessed the accident. It reopened in about an hour.
NTSB officials said the small jet was a vintage fighter-style craft likely manufactured in France in the late 1950s or 1960s and converted for civilian use as a training craft.
The plane had been housed at Martin Aviation, said Pat Kenna, the company's vice president and general manager. It had been flying since early Saturday morning, he said, making several takeoffs and returns.
The distinctive-looking craft was owned by a local airplane broker who rents space at Martin, Kenna said. He described the plane as relatively rare, a model he had never seen in his 30-year aviation career until the broker brought it to the hangar earlier this year.
Kenna said the crash had sent shock waves through local aviation ranks.
"We're all pretty anxious," Kenna said early Saturday evening as he waited for official identification of the victims. "I'm sure some will be people we know. It's a small community. It's a tough day for us."
Later, after the victims' identities were confirmed, Kenna said he was familiar with some of the plane's occupants, but he would not comment further.
Officials said the pilot apparently tried to return to the airport when the plane began experiencing problems.
Martin Aviation employee Aaron Scott, a pilot, said turning a small plane that is losing power often further decreases the craft's power and altitude.
"The basic criteria you follow when an engine fails or you determine you have a problem that requires you to land immediately," Scott said, "is that you usually have to land straight ahead and avoid trying to turn back.
"But there are a lot of factors and a lot of things going through your head, so it's a tough call to make," he said.
George Mon of Laguna Niguel, a former military and commercial pilot, said troubled planes often fare better in emergency landings "in the [Newport] Back Bay or on a street" than in a return to the airport.
"More guys get killed trying to loop back around," Mon said. "You need altitude or speed to turn, and if you're just taking off you don't have either."
The cause of the crash was still unknown late Saturday night, investigators said, as they continued to sift through the smoking wreckage, decorative red and blue stars still visible on the remains of the fuselage.
Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Shelby Grad and Dexter Filkins and Times correspondent John Canalis.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
How the Plane Went Down
1) A private vintage jet takes off from John Wayne Airport with three people aboard, two men and a woman. The French-made craft has been making short flights all day.
2) Moments after taking off, the twin-engine plane sends a distress signal to the airport tower. Airport rescue crews are alerted that the plane may make an emergency landing.
3) The pilot attempts to loop back toward the airport, but instead plunges down toward an industrial park in Irvine.
4) Ten minutes after take-off, the plane tumbles and crashes into the roof of Baxter Healthcare Corp. and bursts into flame. More than 80 employees in surrounding buildings run for cover. All three aboard die, but no injuries are reported on the ground.
Source: Times reports
Here is a list of major airplane crashes in Orange County in recent years:
Nov. 21, 1995--A single-engine plane attempting to land in fog at Fullerton Airport crashes into a nearby apartment complex, killing three.
Dec. 16, 1993--Five people die, including the president of In-N-Out Burgers, when a corporate jet headed for John Wayne Airport crashes near the Santa Ana Auto Mall.
May 2, 1993--A Korean War-era fighter plane crashes during the El Toro Air Show, killing the pilot as hundreds of thousands of spectators watch in horror.
Oct. 18, 1992--A pilot is critically injured when a single-engine plane crash in Buena Park neighborhood near Fullerton Airport.
March 19, 1990--A pilot is killed when a plane headed for Fullerton Airport crashes into the parking lot of Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park.
Dec. 17, 1988--A pilot and passenger killed when plane crashes into Buena Park supermarket warehouse.
June 4, 1986--KFI traffic reporter Bruce Wayne is killed at Fullerton Airport when a plane crashes into a trailer just after takeoff.
Sept. 17, 1982--Two private planes collide over Orange County. One plane lands on a Huntington Beach sidewalk, killing the pilot and passenger. The second makes an emergency landing at John Wayne Airport.
Feb. 17, 1981--An Air California Boeing 737 crash-lands at John Wayne Airport, injuring several passengers.
July 22, 1979--A man dies when single-engine plane crash near Upper Newport Bay just south of John Wayne Airport.
SOURCE: Times reports; Compiled by Shelby Grad