Santa Monica jet crash revives neighborhood debate on airport

On Sunday evening, a 7-foot wall and about 50 feet were all that separated Pete Thorson’s house from the twin-engine jet that crashed into a Santa Monica Airport hangar and burst into flames.

“That’s my worst fear,” he said Monday. His 9-year-old and 11-year-old sons’ bedroom faces the airport.

Community activists say the crash will raise the ante in the ongoing effort to close Santa Monica Airport, one of the most embattled general-aviation facilities in the nation.


“This airport has no room for error,” said Martin Rubin of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution. “These planes would be safer to land at Van Nuys Airport and LAX. This will fuel the arguments to turn the airport into a park.”

Fire officials said Sunday’s crash — which occurred about 6:20 p.m. when a twin-engine Cessna Citation coming from Hailey, Idaho, veered off the right side of the runway and slammed into a nearby storage hangar — was unsurvivable.

The chief executive of one of the largest construction companies in Southern California, Mark Benjamin, 63, and his son, Luke, 28, were believed to be on board the small jet, the company said on its website Monday.

Coroner’s officials had yet to retrieve bodies from the charred wreckage of the crash Monday morning as crews worked to secure the site.

For decades, residents living in Sunset Park have been trying to shut down the airport that has become the favored venue of politicians, celebrities and business executives. In addition to noise and air-quality concerns, some residents said several recent plane crashes highlight the safety risk of having an airport in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

“It’s almost like clockwork,” Thorson said. “Every two or three years a plane crashes” and thrusts the issue back into the spotlight.

He moved into his Pier Avenue home 12 years ago, and in that time, he said the jets landing at the airport have gotten bigger and faster, posing a safety risk to nearby residents.

“The jets put everybody in danger,” Thorson said. “They are too big and too fast for this runway.”

David Goddard, chairman of the Santa Monica Airport Commission, estimated that the crash site was about 150 feet from residences. Had the plane not hit the hangar, it could have gone up an embankment and gotten over a wall before slamming into homes, he said.

“We’ve been attempting to get the City Council to reduce operations at the airport,” Goddard told The Times. “The [assumed] fatalities were tragic, but I was certainly grateful that it happened on the tarmac ... versus off the end of the runway.”

Gerry Cohen, 61, said he remembers when he moved into the neighborhood in 1981, “No jets” signs hung on the fence that separated Sunset Park from Santa Monica Airport. Those signs have disappeared. And after Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, Cohen said he noticed an “exponential increase” in jet traffic flying into the airport.

“Now I marvel at the size of the jets that come out of here,” he said, looking up at the clear sky. “I do say to myself that if one of those jets goes down, it will take down half a block. “

Sunday night, Thorson and his family climbed on stepping stools to watch firefighters knock down 40-foot-high flames that engulfed the plane and the hangar.

“If you don’t have the necessary safety zones, then the accidents are bound to happen,” he said.


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