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San Diego County plane crash victims identified as two nurses and two pilots

Debris from a Learjet crash litters a street
Debris from a Learjet crash in a neighborhood near El Cajon on Tuesday morning, hours after the plane went down. The two pilots and two nurses on board were killed.
(Alejandro Tamayo / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The four people killed when a medical transport jet crashed in an unincorporated area near the suburb of El Cajon this week were identified Wednesday by authorities, friends and professional organizations.

The San Diego County medical examiner’s office identified two of the victims as Douglas James Grande, 42, and Julian Jorge Bugaj, 67. Both men were licensed pilots. Friends and colleagues said nurses Tina Ward and Laurie Gentz were the passengers.

For the record:

4:21 p.m. Dec. 30, 2021A previous version of this story said pilot Douglas James Grande was 45 years old. He was 42.

The four were on a Learjet 35 that crashed and exploded on a residential street in the Bostonia neighborhood about 1.5 miles from Gillespie Field, killing everyone on board.

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Under cold and dark skies Wednesday, several people — presumably friends and family — were allowed behind the yellow tape that surrounded the crash site. They left without talking to reporters. Moments later, authorities pulled down the tape and opened the scene.

Left behind was a makeshift memorial of bright flowers and messages. Among them was a family photo — Grande with a woman and two girls — with messages scrawled on the white frame. “I love you so much dad. I miss you,” one read. “You are my everything,” read another.

Grande’s LinkedIn page states that he was a captain with Aeromedevac Air Ambulance and had been with the medical transport company since May 2019, also working as a first officer.

Aeromedevac posted on its Facebook page Wednesday images of two black ribbons and the words “With a heavy heart we mourn the lives of our friends and our family.” It later added a post confirming “the devastating loss of our colleagues.”

“The loss of our friends has left us an indescribable void. To both us and their families they are unsung heroes, dedicating their lives caring for others in need throughout our community,” the statement said, in part.

A message left with the company seeking comment was not immediately returned.

Two crew members and two passengers were killed in the El Cajon crash Monday evening.

Ward, one of the flight nurses, was the wife of recently retired Oceanside Deputy Fire Chief Joe Ward, according to an Instagram post Tuesday from the union that represents Oceanside Fire Department members.

Acting Oceanside Fire Chief David Parsons sent a message to other fire chiefs in the region confirming the death and saying that the “greater Oceanside Fire Department family has experienced a terrible loss.”

“Tina was well known within the department and words can’t convey the hurt and loss the family and many of us feel,” Parsons wrote. He said the Ward family was surrounded by support and had asked for privacy.

Ward’s Facebook page said she had joined Aeromedevac Air Ambulance as a flight nurse in August and had worked as an emergency room nurse at Palomar Pomerado Health in northern San Diego County. Her page also includes several pictures of her with her husband and three daughters, the most recent posted a day before the deadly crash.

Gentz was identified in a Facebook post by the International Assn. of EMTs and Paramedics, which said Gentz was the president of a local chapter.

“President Gentz will be greatly missed by all who knew her and all who benefit from her selfless contributions to organized labor in the Greater San Diego area,” the post reads.

On her Facebook page, Gentz had noted that she started with Aeromedevac in February and previously had worked with another air ambulance company.

Gentz also worked with American Medical Response, which provides medical transport services such as ambulances. The company declined to offer a full statement out of respect for Aeromedevac but said it was “grieving along with their team, and we offer our deepest condolences to the organization and the families, friends and colleagues of those involved.”

Site of Dec. 27 plane crash

The plane had taken off from Orange County’s John Wayne Airport less than 20 minutes before crashing about 7:15 p.m. Monday.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident and have not said what led to the crash.

On Tuesday, the NTSB said the plane had been on an instrument approach to Runway 17 at Gillespie Field. “As the airplane neared the airport environment, the pilot requested a change to a visual approach to Runway 27R,” an agency spokesperson said.

It was unclear why the runway change was made, but one aviation expert said the pilot may have wanted to use a longer runway because of rain and mist in the region that night.

Max Trescott, a flight instructor who specializes in aviation safety, said it appeared the pilot tried to perform a difficult landing maneuver at an unusually low altitude shortly before the crash.

In the hours before Monday night’s fatal crash, the jet had flown to Arizona and Orange County before returning to El Cajon.

According to the Flight Aware website, the plane left Gillespie Field just before 2 p.m., landing at Lake Havasu City’s airport less than 25 minutes later.

The plane took off about 90 minutes after that and arrived at John Wayne Airport just after 4:45 p.m.

The plane left John Wayne at 6:56 p.m. and crashed shortly before 7:15 p.m. while on approach to Gillespie.


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