NEWPORT BEACH — After five days of surfing and Mexican food, the three buddies from the South Bay were flying home from Scorpion Bay, a world-class surf break on the Baja Peninsula.
They had eaten a roasted pig with other intrepid travelers, watched an off-road truck race and enjoyed the sun. But on the last leg of the journey, something went terribly wrong.
Their veteran pilot and fellow surfer Chuck Chambers had to divert his four-seat plane to John Wayne Airport because it was low on fuel, he told air traffic controllers.
They never made it.
Chambers, 58, a Palos Verdes Estates real estate broker, and his two friends died Sunday night when their single-engine Beechcraft Muskateer crashed into the Back Bay, an ecological preserve here. Federal investigators Monday were examining the wreckage to determine what caused the accident.
Also killed were Russell Urban, 63, of Rancho Palos Verdes, and Sean Kelly, 44, of Hermosa Beach.
"Nothing has ever happened before," said Judy Urban, the widow of 63-year-old Russell Urban, a retired school teacher. "He always complimented his friend, the pilot, because he was meticulous. That would make me feel comfortable."
Urban had flown with Chambers, a 30-year pilot, occasionally over the past four years to surf at Scorpion Bay, near the town of San Juanico about 1,700 miles south of Tijuana. On this trip, Kelly joined them in the private plane.
While previous trips to Mexico had been mixed with charity work, this one was pure fun. They had watched the Baja 1,000 off-road race, which passed right by their friend's house in San Juanico.
"He had been a Baja lover since he was 16," said Chamber's widow, Leslie Chambers. "It was his passion."
Chambers grew up surfing in the South Bay, especially at Rat Beach in Torrance.
"It combined his three loves: flying, Baja and surfing," said Chambers. "They are older, established men, and they still have that love of surfing."
She said that the body of the airplane was original but the instruments and other equipment had been refurbished.
"He just took incredible care of it."
On Sunday morning they started on their trip home after stopping to refuel in San Felipe, said Chambers.
He left an upbeat voice message saying that they would be home before five, she said.
San Felipe is roughly 400 nautical miles from Torrance, and their Beechcraft model had a range of roughly 1,000 nautical miles.
They made an intermediate stop in Calexico, a California border town south of the Salton Sea, but it was unclear if they refueled then, Chambers said.
The National Transportation Safety Board lead investigator Wayne Pollack said he found "minimal fuel" in the engine compartment, when investigating the wreckage Monday.
He was unable to say yet if the crash was because the plane ran out of fuel.
The pilot had called the tower at JWA to warn that it was running low on fuel, said airport spokeswoman Jenny Wedge. John Wayne Airport is less than five miles from the site of the crash.
After hoisting the 1968 plane aboard a barge Monday afternoon, a salvage company towed the wreckage to Newport Dunes, a nearby recreational vehicle park and marina.
The U.S. Coast Guard was working to control any contaminants that may have been released into the sensitive Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve.