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5th Body Found in Apartment Debris After Plane Crash

Times Staff Writers

A fifth body was discovered Sunday amid the charred debris of the Fairfax-area apartment building where a single-engine airplane crashed Friday, authorities said.

Los Angeles County coroner’s officials said four of the victims -- two men and two women -- were occupants of the plane, and the fifth was believed to have been a male resident of the apartment.

All of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, and dental records will be needed to make positive identifications, said coroner’s investigator Lt. Erik Arbuthnot.

He said “tentative notifications” have been made to the victims’ relatives, but he would not publicly release the victims’ names until positive identifications “were made scientifically.” That process could take three or more days, he said.

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The identities of three of the victims who authorities believe were killed in the crash were disclosed by either friends, relatives or a law enforcement source. The wife of Jeffrey T. Siegel, a West Los Angeles contractor, said her husband was the pilot and that one of the passengers was his niece, Jessica Kaplan, a 24-year-old screenwriter. The apartment resident killed in the crash is believed to be Tibor Reis, 76.

Arbuthnot said investigators have recovered paperwork and other information leading them to the identity of the two other passengers, but he declined to elaborate.

One source familiar with the investigation said the two were married.

As investigators discovered another body, workers hauled out large chunks of the six-seat Beechcraft Bonanza, loaded them onto a flatbed truck and shipped them to an undisclosed location.

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Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board plan to sift through the wreckage for clues as to what caused the aircraft to plummet to the ground shortly after taking off from Santa Monica Airport.

NTSB spokeswoman Tealeye Cornejo said investigators also are examining radar data, interviewing witnesses and reviewing a videotape recorded by a camera crew, which shows the plane hitting the three-story, gray stucco building. Cornejo declined to say whether investigators have a preliminary theory explaining why the craft went down.

According to witnesses, the plane dropped from the sky like a missile about 4 p.m. Friday. The craft tore through the roof, third and second floors of the apartment and came to rest in the first-floor garage. An intense fire, fueled by 100 gallons of fuel from the airplane, engulfed the building. The plane was headed to Sun Valley, Idaho, family members said.

On Sunday, glass from apartment windows, which had been blasted out by the fire, remained strewn on the sidewalks across the street from the building.

Passersby, cordoned off by yellow police tape, watched as work crews hauled bags of debris and wreckage from the building. Before the parts of the aircraft could be removed from the garage, workers had to tow out a red car, which had been demolished.

Two residents of the apartment remained hospitalized Sunday. One man was in stable condition at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. A hospital spokeswoman declined to release his name. Another man, 25-year-old Casey Cunningham, who suffered second- and third-degree burns on 18% of his body, including his arms, hands and fingers, was in serious but stable condition Sunday at Grossman Burn Center.

Doctors plan to perform the first of a series surgeries on Cunningham today, grafting skin from cadavers onto his body. In a later operation, doctors will replace the cadaver skin with Cunningham’s own tissue, spokeswoman Jamie Feldstein said.

All of the apartment building’s residents have been displaced. Red Cross officials said they closed their shelter for the tenants on Sunday after no one showed up for assistance Saturday evening.

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Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Don Austin said four of the 14 apartments had been totally destroyed, but he said it was unclear if the building would have to be razed.

Meanwhile, additional details emerged Sunday about the lives of two of the dead.

Tibor Reis was a Yiddish-speaking immigrant who repaired watches for a living. His life, friends said, was dominated by his Jewish faith, and the orthodox synagogue down the block from his apartment.

Described as a elderly man who wore a fedora and sport coats, Reis visited the Young Israel of Los Angeles synagogue nearly every day for services and study, said Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz, who has been at the synagogue for nine years.

Rubanowitz said he still held out hope that the man was alive somewhere. “According to Jewish tradition, until there’s no hope, you’ve gotta have hope,” he said.

Reis was described as a private man -- even the rabbi couldn’t offer much about his background. Rubanowitz said Reis was “one of the bricks of our synagogue,” a serious scholar of the Talmud who would shake his head when the rabbi was making a point that Reis thought he already heard before. “He would also jump in all the time because he had so much to say,” Rubanowitz said.

The night before the plane crash was the beginning of Shevuot, the two-day holiday in which Jews celebrate God’s delivery of the Torah. Reis stayed at the synagogue until 2 a.m. studying with Rubanowitz, then returned at 8:30 a.m. Friday for early services.

Rubanowitz said Reis may have been home Friday afternoon, resting from the long night of prayer.

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Friday’s plane crash ended the brief but successful Hollywood career of Jessica Kaplan.

In 1995, at age 17, Kaplan made nationwide headlines by selling a screenplay to New Line Cinema for a reported $150,000. At the time, Kaplan was a senior at Crossroads High School in Santa Monica.

Her story concerned a group of wealthy Westside private high school students who are obsessed with the “gangsta” lifestyle of South Los Angeles, but are rudely awakened by a run-in with actual gang members.

Hollywood was impressed by the kind of inside knowledge of teen culture that could only come from a teenager. But the project has taken a few years to bear fruit. The screenplay was recently rewritten by “Traffic” writer Stephen Gaghan. Now renamed “Havoc,” it is scheduled to begin production in September, a friend said.

Kaplan kept busy with other projects, including writing the screenplay for the 2000 movie “The Dancer,” about a mute dance teacher. She also wrote a screenplay adaptation of “The Basic Eight,” a dark comedy based on a novel by Daniel Handler, author of the popular “Lemony Snicket” children’s books, said Bridget Johnson, who is producing the movie.

Johnson first met Kaplan shortly after her first screenplay was sold and was astonished by her talent. “I’d never seen characters written the way she had,” Johnson said. “She had a remarkable ear -- the dialogue was impeccable.”

Johnson, who continued to mentor and work with the young writer, said Kaplan remained humble despite the good money she was making, and stayed focused despite the success that came so early. Instead of going to college, Kaplan read voraciously and kept strictly imposed deadlines for her own writing, and recently completed a quasi-autobiographical novel, she said.

Kaplan would have been “a force in our industry, in our culture,” Johnson said.

Authorities “red-tagged” the building, meaning occupants could not return to it without an escort, and officials said some tenants were allowed to return for smaller items Sunday night. But for some, there wasn’t much to recover.

Resident Sara Mattison, a comedy writer who makes ends meet by temping and working a catering job, had planned to stay home Friday to write, but instead decided to see an afternoon movie with a friend.

After the movie, Mattison checked the voice mail on her cell phone and found a message from a friend “wanting to know if I was alive,” she said.

She rushed to her building to find that her first-floor studio apartment had been hit by the plane. Mattison thought she lost everything, including the writing stored on her computer.

But Sunday morning, she received a call from the coroner, who had recovered her charred, but legible, childhood diaries, and turned them over to her in a plastic bag.

Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.


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