Two Killed as Plane Crashes, Burns in Apartment Building

Times Staff Writers

A light plane that had just taken off from Santa Monica Airport crashed nose-first Friday through the roof and two floors of an apartment building in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, killing the pilot and another person and igniting a fire that forced at least two people to leap from the building.

Neighbors, gardeners working nearby, a coach from nearby Fairfax High School and an Orthodox Jewish volunteer rescue team rushed to help as residents struggled to flee the flames.

"I saw this plane coming down like a kamikaze, spinning slowly, like a top, as it came straight down," said a witness, James Vickman, 43, who lives several blocks away.

The plane dove through the top floor of the three-story, 14-unit complex in the 600 block of north Spaulding Avenue, burying itself in the building's basement parking garage. Flames mushroomed through the roof, and the center of the structure collapsed.

The cause of the 3:55 p.m. crash was not known, but officials said there was no evidence that terrorism was involved. Nonetheless, FBI and other terrorism experts were called in to aid in the investigation.

Authorities did not identify the two people who died, and it was unclear whether the second fatality had been aboard the plane or in the building. Seven were injured, one critically.

Officials said the plane, a six-seat Beechcraft Bonanza, had taken off from the airport, about seven miles west of the crash site, at 3:45 p.m. for a flight to Sun Valley, Idaho.

Controllers in the airport tower told the pilot to contact the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in San Diego for further guidance, but the pilot never did so, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board began searching the wreckage Friday night for clues.

Shane Cox, Fairfax High School's head football coach, was about 30 minutes into a spring training practice on an athletic field full of 100 students when he heard what he thought was a helicopter. He looked up in time to see a white plane plunging toward the ground.

"It was coming down. I thought it was going to hit us or the cafeteria, where an ESL banquet was being held," Cox said. "All this transpired within three seconds. The plane just crashed vertically into the apartment. The last thing I saw was the tail descending into the building and then smoke, fire, a whole bunch of dust and debris just shot up in the air."

As his athletes ran from the direction of the crash site, about 25 yards away from where they had been running drills, Cox joined neighbors and area workers running toward the fire.

Aron Mushkin, 88, was in his second-floor apartment when the plane hit.

"I was sleeping in the bed and it was like a bomb went off," he said. "Fire, glass, big smoke!" Confused, Mushkin said he sat on his bed and waited for a few minutes, then started putting on his shoes. He needs help walking, however, and could not get out of the room himself. So he sat back down on the bed and waited.

Casey Cunningham, 25, was sitting on his living room couch watching a History Channel special on D-day, when a fireball ripped through the room. The plane came in diagonally and tore through his top-floor apartment and a neighbor's unit before crashing into the apartment beneath them, he told his wife, Andrea Cunningham, 29. She was at her job as a waitress at the time of the crash.

When the living room caught fire, he ran into the bedroom which was still clear of smoke. He was at the window ready to jump, he told his wife, but people on the ground below were urging him to wait. Another resident was jumping from his window and nobody was available to catch him.

Los Angeles Fire Chief William Bamattre said the remnants of the plane came to rest in the building's first-floor parking area. "It went through the two living levels and came to rest on the concrete," he said. "[The plane is] pretty much disintegrated. It's in a pile of rubble."

Flames from the crash triggered a two-alarm fire and firefighters arrived minutes later. Coach Cox and others were already working to help people trapped.

Among them were Hatzolah volunteers, trained emergency medical technicians who work on a volunteer basis. They sped in cars to the crash, despite the prohibition on driving on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

Shmuel Manne, 35, a computer technician in his daytime job, treated a neighbor standing near the scene of the fire who had a seizure on the street.

In the apartment building, one woman screamed from a second-story window: "Please catch me," said documentary filmmaker Craig Weaver.

Although he had grabbed a blanket and his dog's bed to cushion the fall, he didn't have the chance to use them. "I just told her to jump," Weaver said. He and a few other people held out their arms, he said, and "we just caught her with our hands."

Apartment resident Johnny Ray, 37, was hanging from another upper-floor window. Ray, described as a heavyset man, was known in the neighborhood for his potbellied pig, Harley. Cox, the high school coach, and others at the scene got ready to break his fall. But Ray slipped and fell before they could get to him, landing on the concrete in a hard fall that witnesses said sounded terrible.

Fearing the heat of the fire, men on the scene struggled to move Ray across the street.

Jeff Harris, 33, had been asleep in his apartment just across the alley when the plane crashed. He ran next door to help, ushering the landlady for the building, Jeanne Arneberg, 74, and her dog to safety. Harris said he tried to return to knock on other friends' doors but was kept back by the flames.

By this time, Casey Cunningham had decided he couldn't wait for help from below, he told his wife later.

"He didn't want to die so he opened the door and ran into the fire and out of the building," she said her husband told her. He was home during the day because he worked the night shift at Saddle Ranch, a Sunset Boulevard restaurant and bar.

On the street below, one of the Hatzolah volunteers helped Cunningham, who had suffered third-degree burns on both of his arms from just above his elbows down to his fingers and also suffered second-degree burns to his face. He was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where he was placed on morphine late Friday and transferred to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, his wife said.

Firefighters battled the blaze for 30 minutes as thick black smoke and bright flames burned from the fuel loaded on the plane. A narrow alley separates the building from a home to the west and firefighters were worried about the blaze spreading.

Firefighters going door to door found Mushkin waiting to be helped and carried him from the building. He asked immediately about his landlady, Arneberg, who is kind to him and brings him food, knowing he has no family. He was relieved to hear she had escaped with help.

A victim too badly burned for investigators to immediately provide an age or gender was found inside a second-floor apartment buried beneath a pile of debris.

Bamattre said the fuselage of the plane is in the garage, which is half above and half below ground, but is difficult to see.

"You can see the propeller of the airplane and not much else," he said.

Many on the scene, and those whose relatives suffered injuries, said they were thankful the losses were not greater.

"As bad it was it could have been so much worse," Cox said. "I think the guy saw the field and thought he should put his plane down. I'm always going to think in my heart he saw all the kids on the field and said: 'I can't do it.' "

Andrea Cunningham, who is 5 1/2 months' pregnant, said she is grateful her husband escaped.

"Honestly it's a miracle," she said. "Besides his arms and face, there's not a scratch on him."

Many living in the area have worried about the airport in Santa Monica, one of the busiest single-runway general aviation airports in the country,

In the last two decades, there have been more than a dozen crashes into urban areas by planes coming to or from the airport, which handles about 230,000 takeoffs and landings a year.

None of the previous accidents in recent years caused any deaths other than those of pilots and their passengers. Airport managers have said Santa Monica's accident rate is lower than average for a general aviation airport.

Nevertheless, concern peaked in late 1993 and early 1994, when three planes from the airport crashed within five months, killing five people aboard.

One crashed into the carport of a Santa Monica apartment building, killing three passengers, including the son of film director Sydney Pollack. Another just missed an occupied home in the Sunset Park area, and the third hit a vacant house on South Barrington Avenue.

In August 1998, a small plane en route to the Santa Monica airport crashed on the athletic field of Daniel Webster Junior High School in West Los Angeles, injuring four people aboard. Since it occurred on a summer Sunday, school was not in session.

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Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Darren Briscoe, Jia-Rui Chong, Megan Garvey, Martha Groves, Erika Hayasaki, Errin Haynes, Mitchell Landsberg, Evelyn Larrubia, Caitlin Liu, Hilda Munoz, Peter Nicholas, Jennifer Oldham, David Pierson, Lisa Richardson, Doug Smith, Kurt Streeter, Julie Tamaki and Richard Winton.

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