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Death Toll Rises to 4 in Plane Crash

Times Staff Writers

The death toll rose to four Saturday as investigators probing the crash of a light plane into a Los Angeles apartment building shored up the unstable structure and worked to complete their search for bodies, remove the dead and extract the charred aircraft.

One of the dead is believed to be a man who lived on the third floor of the Fairfax district building. The three others, including the pilot and his niece, are thought to have been in the plane.

None of the identities was released, but the wife of pilot Jeffrey T. Siegel, a West Los Angeles contractor, said she had been notified that her husband was among the dead.

For the newly homeless residents, Saturday morning turned into a curbside counseling session as they talked about their losses and worried whether they would be able to find another affordable place to live.

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They also were counting their blessings.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be here, because I was within seconds of death,” said one tenant, Marty Lindsey, 32, who had left the building minutes before the plane struck Friday. “I was given a gift, and I just want to do something good with my life.”

Investigators put up a 10-foot-tall plastic curtain around the building as they combed through debris and searched for bodies all day.

The pilot’s body was found atop a car next to the cockpit on the building’s ground floor garage. The body of the resident who died was found on the second floor, but officials believe he was in a third-floor apartment when the crash occurred and had been dragged down by the force of the impact, said Bill Wick, a spokesman for the city of Los Angeles Fire Department.

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The other two bodies “appeared to have been in the fuselage at the time of impact, but were found next to the fuselage,” said Fire Capt. Patrick Butler.

The six-seat Beechcraft Bonanza nose-dived through the roof and slammed down two stories into the garage. Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board were at the scene Saturday but did not release information about the possible cause of the crash.

It took workers longer than expected to reinforce the building with wooden beams and posts, and they had removed less than 10% of the debris piled on top of the plane.

“If there are more bodies, they would be under the debris,” Wick said. Officials hope they can extract the plane from the building today.

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The family of pilot Siegel said he and his niece, Jessica Kaplan, 24, had been flying to the family’s second home in Sun Valley, Idaho. They had taken off from Santa Monica Airport at 3:45 p.m. Friday.

Coroner’s officials notified them Saturday of the procedures that would be undertaken to make positive identifications, said Judy Gantz Siegel, the pilot’s wife.

She described her husband as a “very skilled pilot” who was passionate about his hobby and had flown since he was a teenager. She told their 8- and 10-year-old sons, whom Jeffrey Siegel “loved more than life,” about their father’s death Saturday.

“He had the ability to land the plane if it malfunctioned,” she said, adding: “I can’t believe it. I want to hear an explanation of what happened. He is such a good pilot.”

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Siegel, who grew up in Beverly Hills and attended UCLA, owned JTS Construction in Santa Monica and had erected numerous buildings in the Los Angeles area, including artists’ lofts in Venice and a commercial structure for Muscle Magazine, his wife said.

He had acquired the Beechcraft recently and was teaching his sons about flying.

“He felt at peace when he flew,” Judy Siegel said, adding that he was meticulous about it. He had planned to fly earlier in the day, she said, but delayed the trip for safety reasons, taking off when the fog cleared.

His niece was described by family members as a film writer who had started her career at age 16.

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While still a student at the private Crossroads School in Santa Monica, she began writing for New Line Cinema. She is survived by her parents, Renee and Josh Kaplan of Los Angeles.

The family, interviewed Friday night and Saturday morning, did not say whether there had been others aboard the plane.

Three tenants remained hospitalized Saturday. Casey Cunningham, 25, was in stable condition at Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks with burns on his hands, arms and head.

His wife, Andrea, is 5 1/2 months pregnant and, like her husband, is an actor who makes ends meet waiting tables. Like many tenants, they lost everything and did not have renter’s insurance. Their friends are planning a fund-raiser for them at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Bang Theater.

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Two men are at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said spokeswoman Jane Hong. One had been admitted as a trauma patient, but she said she could not release identities or information on their condition.

Fire officials said four or five apartments in the 14-unit building had been destroyed and all the others had been damaged by smoke, heat and water, making the structure uninhabitable. The Red Cross will provide emergency grants for clothing, medication and one month’s housing.

Tami Talebe, 30, who has lived in the building for six years, said she was “still in shock and concerned about where I’m going to live and the fact that I’m homeless.... I’m so sad.... I loved the apartment. I will never be able to live in this area with such low rents again.”

In a frustrating twist, she said, she had even lost the clothes off her back.

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“A friend of mine washed my clothes this morning, and someone broke into her basement and stole them,” said Talebe, who works as a production assistant in Santa Monica.

She was reading in her third-floor apartment when an explosion jolted her from her chair. She ran and opened her front door, but heavy smoke turned her back. She knew there would be only one way out.

“I’m going to have to jump, I’m going to have to jump,” she said she told herself, recounting how she had run to the window and screamed for help. She tore off the screen and shouted to a few young men outside, “You’re going to have to help me!”

The strangers clustered together on the outside stairway. She jumped, they caught her and they all ran away from the burning building.

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Late Friday she was able to retrieve the most prized possession in her apartment: the independent feature film that she has long been working on.

“The first thing I thought about after I jumped was my film,” she said, adding that she was sore and achy Saturday. “I’m still going to go on finishing my film, but it will be a little more complicated, because I don’t have a place to live.”

Another tenant, Kevin Du Toit, 26, said his 2- and 3-year-old boys usually nap at home in the late afternoon, but Friday his wife had taken them to a Burbank park for lunch.

They stayed with relatives Friday night. On Saturday, they were briefly allowed back into their unit, for just long enough to throw essential clothing and shoes onto a comforter, wrap it up like a knapsack and leave for good.

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“There is no way we can come back,” Du Toit said after surveying the building. Although the fire did not reach their apartment, their belongings were soaked. “This is almost like a new beginning. I’m grateful to have my wife and kids. You can gain back the material things.”

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Times staff writers Stephanie Chavez, David Pierson and Hector Becerra contributed to this report.


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