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Film Director Says Jet Crew Fled After Crash

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A film director, the sole passenger on a business jet that crashed on landing at Van Nuys Airport last week, said the three crewmembers abandoned him and rushed to safety, even though fuel was leaking from the wreckage, according to a report released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld was unhurt when the jet veered off the runway Feb. 16 and crashed into five parked planes, destroying three of them.

But he told NTSB investigators he was forced to make his escape without the assistance of the crew, who fled the plane through the rear baggage door, the board’s preliminary report said.

Sonnenfeld told investigators that “shortly after the aircraft came to a stop, the cockpit door flew open and the crew tried to unsuccessfully open the entry door. None of the crewmembers directed any attention to him,” the report said.

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“At this point he noticed what he believed to be fuel running down the top of the wing and said, ‘I think we have a problem.’ He heard crewmembers say, ‘O God, we’ll go out the back,’ and ‘Let’s go.’

“All three ran by him to the back of the aircraft and exited through the baggage door without directing any comments to him or offering any assistance. He went to the back of the aircraft and jumped to waiting firemen,” the report continued.

About 20 Los Angeles firefighters were called to contain and clean up 300 gallons of fuel that spilled from the damaged planes.

Sonnenfeld, who directed “The Addams Family” in 1991 and “Men in Black” in 1997, was in New York and unavailable for comment Friday. An assistant in his New York office, Mary Viola, said the director did not want to talk about the crash.

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“It’s something he wants to forget,” she said.

Mischa Hausserman, chief executive officer of Trans-Exec Air Services, which owns the plane, denied that the crew of the Gulfstream II fled without aiding their passenger.

Hausserman said the flight’s first officer, Dante Loverde, said he had urged the director to follow him to the rear of the plane, where he opened an exit and jumped about six feet to the ground.

“It is my understanding that [Sonnenfeld] was standing in the aisle with his bag,” Hausserman said. “Mr. Loverde made a comment to me that he said, ‘Come on, leave the bag, follow me, follow me.’ ”

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Loverde could not be reached for comment.

Hausserman said he did not know the order in which the other crew members and Sonnenfeld left the plane. He disputed the statement that Sonnenfeld “jumped to waiting firemen,” contending the firefighters took a few minutes to arrive at the scene and had not yet arrived when Sonnenfeld left the plane.

City Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said information on how quickly the firefighters responded was not available Friday.

The Gulfstream II skidded more than 4,400 feet after it landed, plowing into the parked aircraft and flattening a fence, the report said. It did not identify what caused the plane to crash. But the report said “several ground witnesses observed the aircraft travel over the runway at what appeared to them to be higher than normal speed” and a mechanic said it appeared to “hit hard” on touchdown.

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No one was injured in the accident, but the collision caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage to the parked aircraft that the Gulfstream struck, airport officials said.

Hausserman said at the time that the pilot had deliberately veered into the aircraft parking area so the collisions would prevent the jet from hurtling onto busy Vanowen Boulevard.

The one-page NTSB report was prefaced by a statement saying it contained preliminary information that was subject to change and may contain errors. A representative of the NTSB, which is in charge of investigating the accident, did not return calls Friday.

The plane’s pilot, Georgia Holzmann, and flight hostess Zoe England both requested and were granted leaves of absence after the accident, Hausserman said. Loverde is still on duty, he said.

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