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3 Tesla Motors employees killed in plane crash

Reporting from Orinda, Calif., and East Palo Alto, Calif. -- Residents of a densely packed neighborhood in East Palo Alto, Calif., awoke to explosions and fire Wednesday when a small plane carrying employees of an electric car company crashed in dense fog, killing all three aboard and spewing debris over several homes.

The twin-engine Cessna 310 hit 60-foot-high transmission lines, and its fuselage was found tangled in wires.

The victims, who were not immediately identified, were employees of Tesla Motors Inc., a San Carlos, Calif.-based firm that builds electric-powered vehicles. They were headed to Hawthorne, where the company has operations.

“Tesla is a small, tightly knit company, and this is a tragic day for us,” said Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive.

Emergency responders said it was miraculous that no one on the ground was seriously injured. Four houses and five vehicles were damaged in the crash shortly before 8 a.m.

Caryn Ramirez, 18, was changing her baby when the plane slammed down on her street.

“It got dark, and then there was an orange flash,” Ramirez said. “Two seconds later, the house shook. I looked outside. There was a huge flame.”

Most of the nearby city of Palo Alto -- 28,000 customers -- lost power for nearly nine hours after the plane sliced electrical lines. Traffic lights were down, City Hall was open but had no power and only sporadic telephone service, and libraries were shuttered. Hospitals canceled nonessential surgeries and operated with emergency generators.

The plane crashed shortly after taking off from Palo Alto Airport after filing a flight plan that permitted the pilot to fly in inclement weather. Josh Cawthra, an aviation accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators were “looking into the weather conditions.” An hour before the crash, there was only an eighth of a mile of visibility at the airport, he said.

The fog was so thick that emergency personnel did not immediately spot the plane, which ricocheted off a retaining wall and slid into three parked cars, torching them.

“Until they got right up on the incident, they didn’t know what they had,” Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, said at a news conference down the street from the crash. The bodies of the plane’s occupants, covered with yellow blankets, could be seen under a tree near a tangle of metal.

“There are miraculously no reports of anyone else injured,” Schapelhouman said.

Some residents of the neighborhood of modest bungalows and barred windows said they had been concerned in the past about low-flying planes, and questioned why the aircraft was permitted to take off in dense fog.

Bernice Turner-Ragland, 49, said she heard explosions.

“I went outside, and you could see the fire flame up,” the longtime resident said. “That’s when I became very, very frightened and went inside the house.”

Schapelhouman said part of a wing hit a house in front of a day-care center. The house caught fire, but those inside, including at least one child, escaped. The center was unscathed.

The plane was registered to Air Unique Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., owned by Doug Bourn, 57, of Santa Clara, a senior electrical engineer at Tesla who is believed to have died in the crash.

A neighbor left a pot of lilies on Bourn’s front porch Wednesday with a note that read: “Doug, Thank you for always being there for me and my family. You will forever be missed.”

Despite past troubles, Tesla has been gaining momentum as gas prices have risen and consumers have warmed to electric cars.

The firm’s Roadster sports car sells for about $109,000, though federal tax credits can trim the cost for buyers. In May, the company recalled 345 of its Roadsters built before April 22 because of suspension problems that could cause drivers to lose control.

“Tesla isn’t a very big company, and this tragedy will be felt, I’m sure,” said David Menlow, president of IPOfinancial.com.

maria.laganga @latimes.com

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Nathan Olivarez-Giles in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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