RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Juan Cortes and his son were installing fencing when they saw a low-flying plane make an awkward tilt and go straight down into a quiet Southern California neighbourhood of single-family homes. Moments later they and others were confronted with a horrifying inferno.
“I saw the smoke, the black smoke,” said Cortes, 42, who raced to the scene in a truck with 19-year-old son Jonathan and tried to help.
People were screaming in the street, and he saw a woman pulled away from the flames. “She was alive because she was screaming, ‘My daughter! My daughter!’” he recalled Tuesday.
Traci Zamora, 38, rushed out of her home and around a corner to find a house engulfed in flames and then saw a victim emerge.
“She just came crawling right out of it onto the front lawn,” she said. “Her lower body was on fire.”
The crash of the twin-engine Cessna 310 late Monday afternoon killed a man, a woman and a teenager, and two other women were ejected when it hit the corner of a house, authorities said. The women were hospitalized with critical injuries.
Despite the inferno, no one on the ground was hurt, but two houses were destroyed. Two others had minor damage.
“The airplane itself is in quite a few pieces, spread over a debris field” of about 100-150 feet, said Stephen Stein, an air safety investigator with the United States National Transportation Safety Board.
Investigators have received conflicting accounts of what may have led up to the crash and are continuing to interview additional witnesses, Stein said.
No identities were released, but Riverside Fire Chief Michael Moore said the plane had just taken off from Riverside Municipal Airport, less than a mile away, bound for San Jose after a weekend cheerleading competition staged at the Disney California Adventure Park.
Weather in the area 60 miles east of Los Angeles had included rain, but there were no immediate indications of what caused the crash. NTSB investigators will examine environmental conditions, including the weather, along with the pilot’s history, flight records and the physical components of the aircraft, Stein said.
One of the women survivors suffered burns on 90 per cent of her body and was found under debris in a smoke-filled bedroom of a burning home and was lifted out a window, fire Capt. Tyler Reynolds said. “She was moaning and that is how the firefighters found her,” he said.
The other survivor also was hospitalized in critical condition.
The tail number of the aircraft was N1246G, according to a government official with knowledge of the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to release the information until next-of-kin have been notified.
Federal records show that number is assigned to a twin-engine Cessna 310 registered to Nouri Hijazi of San Jose. Telephone listings for him were either disconnected or went to voicemail.
Moore did not provide the name of the cheerleading competition, but the Jr. USA Nationals for girls 15 and under was held at Disney California Adventure Park over the weekend. Officials with the competition did not immediately return calls Tuesday.
For many in the neighbourhood the crash announced itself with a tremendous boom that rattled their houses like an earthquake.
H.L. Reyes, who lives about a quarter-mile from the crash site, said she felt the ground shake and saw plumes of black smoke.
“I thought it was a possible earthquake, and we heard all the birds just suddenly react outside, too,” Reyes said. “This was just like a nightmare coming true.”
Hector Jimenez, 19, was playing video games at home when he heard a loud boom and saw black smoke.
“It’s just sad that it happened here,” he said. “It makes me nervous living around an airport. That’s one of my worst fears, having this happen.”
AP writers Christopher Weber, John Antczak, Michael Balsamo, Amanda Lee Myers and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York.