The Cessna twin-engine plane had just taken off from the Palo Alto Airport when it clipped a regional PG&E powerline, veered into a nearly 100-foot-high transmission tower, broke apart and crashed into an East Palo Alto neighborhood.
All three persons aboard the plane were killed but no one on the ground was injured.
"It was a miracle," Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District said of the absence of injuries or deaths on the ground. The main fuselage could have landed on a house as easily as on Beech Street, he noted.
He and others outlined the precise sequence of the crash, starting when the plane took off moments before 8 a.m., flying on instruments due to the dense fog blanketing the area.
Something went wrong, and the plane failed to make a turn over the bay but instead veered sharply left then hit the powerline and the steel transmission tower. (Without speculating about this specific crash, several experienced pilots said a sharp veering in a twin-engine plane could indicate a power failure in one of the engines.)
The the top of the tower partially collapsed, severing several live wires that fell to the ground -- electrifying the soil.
"It was a serious situation," Schapelhouman said of the first responders to the powerline site.
One of the plane's wings, loaded with fuel for a flight to Los Angeles, was severed by the impact with the powerline or tower and sailed several hundred feet into the East Palo Alto neighborhood of Beech Street near Pulgas Avenue. Small sections of the powerline were found embedded in the wing.
The wing crashed into the back end of the front house of a two-building day care/preschool center at 1225 Beech and burst into flames. Nearby residents reported hearing the crash and a loud boom, but couldn't tell exactly where the impact was because of the thick fog.
A woman feeding a baby in the day care center ran out the front when she saw flames engulfing the rear. The flames destroyed about half the house and water and smoke damage ruined the rest, Schapelhouman reported.
Simultaneously, a portion of the plane's fuselage, its landing gear and its engine crashed into a carport at 1215 Beech, destroying it. The engine continued and crashed through the wall of the garage at 1203 Beech, where it was found. A vehicle in the carport was smashed, officials reported.
The main fuselage with the plane's occupants continued to 1180 Beech, colliding with two parked vehicles, including a motorhome, and crashing into the home, starting a fire in the front of the house.
Debris from the plane was scattered over 2,000 to 3,000 feet and was about a block wide, Schapelhouman said.
He said in the 29 years he has worked with the fire district there has never been a plane impacting a residential area, although a number of crashes occurred in the marshlands, the bay or San Francisquito Creek over the years.
"This is one of the more significant crashes I've seen," he said.
Mayor David Woods of East Palo Alto said he was impressed with how residents responded to the crash.
"This tragedy shows how resilient we are, and how fast the community came together and collaborated as first-responders," Woods said. Residents "knocked on neighbors' doors to tell them to get out of their houses," when it wasn't clear how far the fires might spread.
The city's new telephone-alert system was activated to notify residents about the crash and let them know no residents were killed or injured, which effectively calmed and reassured people, Woods said.