It's been five years since a Cessna piloted by Tesla Motors employee Douglas Bourn crashed into an East Palo Alto neighborhood, and it has taken nearly that long for all of the litigation to resolve against Bourn's estate and Tesla Motors. In that time, East Palo Alto families have tried to rebuild their lives and their homes, and relatives of the two plane passengers killed, Brian Finn and Andrew Ingram, have received some compensation for their loved ones' deaths.
Settlements and community fundraising have brought some measure of closure to people's lives. But steps have yet to be taken to ensure that such a crash by pilots flying out of Palo Alto Municipal Airport never happens again.
Court records show that the victims of the Feb. 17, 2010, disaster received compensation, but the settlement terms are not known.
Paula and Barbara Ingram, Andrew Ingram's parents, filed suit in San Mateo County Superior Court against Bourn and his company, Air Unique, on Aug. 17, 2010, for unspecified damages. Their suit was settled in February 2013 for an undisclosed sum.
Finn's wife, Sherina Yuk Chan, and their young child, Erin Silei Finn, filed suit against Air Unique on Jan. 10, 2011. That suit settled in December 2012, according to court documents.
Lisa Jones, whose home was completely destroyed after the plane struck the roof and started a fire, struggled with homelessness and lived with friends after she lost her daycare business that she operated out of the house. She and six family members filed suit against Bourn's estate on Nov. 22, 2010, and settled on Aug. 12, 2013, for an undisclosed sum, but the settlement was not adequate to rebuild her home, she later said.
Atherton residents stepped in to raise money to rebuild Jones' home with the help of the nonprofit Rebuilding Together. Jones returned to her home in September, the last victim to return to the neighborhood.
Beech Street residents Ervin and Pinkie Hudleton, whose vehicle and carport were destroyed by parts of the disintegrating plane, filed a lawsuit on Feb. 16, 2012, against Bourn, Air Unique, Tesla, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, Palo Alto Airport and Pacific Gas & Electric. Their litigation settled in August 2012.
Five family members living at the home of Jose Cortes-Herrera, whose house, belongings and vehicles were damaged by fire from the crash and explosion, filed suit in San Mateo County in 2010 against Air Unique, Tesla Motors and Bourn's estate. Most of the victims settled in December 2013, but two family members disputed the sum and were awarded $10,000 each on Aug. 4, 2014, according to court documents.
As memories fade and lives move on, Palo Alto Airport and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which determines flight paths and rules for airports and aircraft, continue to point to pilot error as the reason for the crash. National Transportation Safety Board investigators did determine that Bourn took off in heavy fog conditions and did not obey the approved flight route, which instructed him to bank to the right over the San Francisco Bay. For an unknown reason, Bourn banked left after takeoff and at a lower elevation, striking a utility tower before crashing into the Beech Street homes.
"Once flight clearance has been obtained, no pilot may deviate from that clearance unless an amended clearance is obtained, an emergency exists, or the deviation is in response to a traffic alert and collision avoidance system resolution advisory," FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said in an email this week.
The FAA doesn't close airports due to weather conditions, but an airport could choose to close a runway if it is damaged or if an aircraft is disabled on the runway. But flying in bad weather is a pilot's risk, Gregor said.
The FAA has not had any discussions with East Palo Alto or Palo Alto officials regarding a change in procedures or flight patterns, Gregor said.
Palo Alto City Manager James Keene said that following the plane crash city officials had extensive conversations with East Palo Alto, primarily around emergency response, communication and coordination.
"At that time, the airport was a county operation. Now that the city has taken over the airport, we expect working together with our neighbors regarding the airport -- operations and planning -- will be the standard," he said.
City Council member Pat Burt, who was mayor in 2010 when the crash occurred, said the city's takeover of the airport could involve stronger education programs for pilots.
Ralph Britton, Palo Alto Airport Association president, said the association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association held a seminar for pilots at Cubberley Auditorium on Sept. 20, 2010, to discuss safety operating procedures and the risks associated with low-visibility departures.
"The Palo Alto Airport Association regularly reminds pilots to be mindful of East Palo Alto's proximity to the airport and follow procedures which will minimize noise impact to the community. The memory of this tragedy continues to weigh heavily on the airport community," he added.
East Palo Alto Interim Manager Carlos Martinez, City Councilman Ruben Abrica and former mayor David Woods, who were involved in the city at the time of the crash, did not return requests for comment.
Lawsuit settled, plane crash victim looks to rebuild (July 2013)
Pilot error caused East Palo Alto plane crash (November 2011)
East Palo Alto plane crash: One year later (February 2011)
Three Tesla employees die in plane crash (February 2010)