A North Hills couple died early Tuesday when their single-engine plane crashed into a two-story home whose residents escaped injury by using an emergency ladder they had placed on their balcony just two days earlier.
The plane's full fuel tank ignited a fireball that roared through the roof of the home and set the foggy morning aglow, witnesses said. The force of the blast shattered neighbors' windows 50 feet away and hurled flaming debris as far as 100 yards.
The couple killed in the crash, Reiner Bey, 66, and his wife, Guadalupe, believed to be in her early 40s, were on their way to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he was scheduled to undergo surgery for prostate cancer, according to family members and a business associate.
Coroner's officials declined to confirm the identity of the victims until they consult dental records because the bodies were so badly burned.
George Petterson, an investigator with the National Transportation and Safety Board, said the pilot may have become disoriented in the early morning fog minutes after he left Van Nuys Airport, less than a mile from the crash site, and lost control of the model M-20R plane. The pilot was not certified to fly in the overcast skies that blanketed most of the city Tuesday morning, Petterson said.
The overcast ceiling was reported at 900 feet, lower than the minimum 1,000-foot ceiling required for pilots to take off without using flight instruments. Visibility was at the minimum 3-mile level.
The plane took off from the airport before the control tower's 6:15 a.m. opening.
At 5:15 the plane spiraled out of the clouds and smashed through the roof and an upstairs bedroom before coming to rest in the dining room of the house on the corner of Andasol Avenue and Hartland Street. Los Angeles city firefighters said pieces of the plane had penetrated the concrete slab under the house. Firefighters estimated the house sustained $105,000 damage.
It took firefighters five hours to cut through the slag and retrieve the bodies from the wreckage.
Bey, a North Hills resident and father of two adult children, was an experienced pilot with more than 9,200 flight hours, Petterson said.
Bey was a "fixture around the airport," said Rich Manchen, a welder who rented business property from Bey for 12 years. Bey owned real estate in California and Oregon. Manchen and others described the avid pilot as a kind, soft-spoken man.
The Beys enjoyed flying and often took long trips in Bey's new plane, said Jack and Janet Lewis, who lived next door to the couple on Chase Street in North Hills.
As soon as Bey brought his new four-seat plane to Van Nuys Airport, he took his neighbors to see it. Jack Lewis remembered that Guadalupe Bey was under its belly waxing the shiny blue finish. The couple had a hangar painted to match the plane.
"He sold his old plane, and his new one was a beauty," Janet Lewis said.
"The inside looked like the inside of a $50,000 Cadillac," Jack Lewis said.
Bey talked often about his plane and purchased magazines about flying. He tried to get the Lewises to fly with him and Guadalupe to Costa Rica, but the couple were skittish about flying long distances in a single-engine plane.
"When it's got one motor, that's all there is," Janet Lewis said. "Anything could happen."
Jack Lewis said Bey and his wife often took long trips to Mexico, Costa Rica and Texas and had returned last month from a trip to Florida. Just two months ago, Bey had two extra fuel tanks installed in the plane so he could travel long distances, Lewis said.
The two couples sometimes went out to dinner together, and when either couple went away, the other watered the plants and took in the mail. Bey's mail on Tuesday was sitting on an end table in Lewis' living room.
Lewis said Bey's son, Michael, visited the Lewises on Tuesday morning. After one look at his tear-streaked face, Lewis knew something was wrong.
"We were such good friends," Jack Lewis said. "They were the best neighbors we had on the street. What a shock."
"I can't believe he's not here anymore," Janet Lewis said.
Federal Aviation Administration records show that Bey purchased the new plane, a high-performance craft with a retractable landing gear, six months ago from Mooney Aircraft Corp. in Kerrville, Texas. Firefighters valued the Mooney at $300,000.
The plane was registered in Bandon, Ore., and had been based at Van Nuys Airport, Petterson said.
Bey had owned a number of Mooney models over the years and was an active member of the Mooney Aircraft Pilots Assn., a worldwide aircraft enthusiast club.
The owners of the gutted home, Nate, 68, and Carol Peiman, who turns 66 today, escaped with minor bumps and bruises. They now face the prospect of having to rebuild their home for the second time in four years. The couple moved back into their house a year after the 1994 Northridge earthquake demolished the 3,200-square-foot structure, and Carol Peiman had just finished redecorating the interior a few weeks ago.
"I'm beginning to wonder if somebody's trying to tell us something," she said.
Carol Peiman said she awoke to the familiar sound of a low-flying plane but started to worry as the sputtering engine became louder.
"Living so close to the airport, I've heard a lot of planes--but I thought, 'God, that's awfully close,' " she said.
Next thing she knew her house was rocked by the impacting fuselage and "the room turned a bright yellow. All I could think about was my cat."
Carol Peiman found out later that her cat, Merv, raced out of the home and hid somewhere in the tree-lined neighborhood.
Nate Peiman woke up to his wife's cries and the blaring smoke alarm. Racing from another bedroom he saw flames licking the bottom of the stairs and felt intense heat on his face.
"It was like the earthquake all over again," he said.
Luckily, he had purchased a chain ladder two weeks ago and had finally placed it on the balcony outside his wife's second-story bedroom Sunday.
"My wife's been bugging me about it for the last four years [since the earthquake]. She said we needed another way out" in case of an emergency, Nate Peiman said. "I bought it mainly to keep her happy."
Throwing on a pair of jeans, Nate Peiman, bare-chested and shoeless, climbed down the ladder with his wife as a small crowd gathered outside their home. The Peimans were virtually unscathed--Carol Peiman broke a nail, scratched her finger and bruised her left leg.
Standing outside their smoldering home, the Peimans pledged to rebuild again.
"We'll patch it up and get going. Fortunately we have insurance," said Nate Peiman, who has lived in the house with his wife for two decades.
"It was beautiful; it was lovely," said Carol Peiman. "We loved our home, but we can do it again. It's not the most important thing in the world. I'm just glad we're alive."
Times staff writer Claire Vitucci contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The airplane that struck a home shortly after taking off Tuesday morning was made by Mooney Aircraft of Kerrville, Texas. This model, the Ovation, first came off the production line there in 1994 and is now one of the company's best-sellers. Van Nuys Airport, which began operations in 1928, is the busies general aviation airport in the world. Last year it was the site of 537,470 takeoffs and landings.
Passenger capacity: 4
Cruising speed: 218 mph
Weight: 3,368 lbs.
Fuel capacity: 89 gallons
Sources: Mooney Aircraft, L.A. Dept. of Airports