Report on cause of crash expected by early next week | February 19, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - February 19, 2010

Report on cause of crash expected by early next week

Cessna 310R hit power line, tower and plummeted into East Palo Alto neighborhood Wednesday

by Sue Dremann, Jay Thorwaldson and Tyler Hanley

Investigators into the fatal crash of a Cessna twin-engine plane in an East Palo Alto neighborhood Wednesday morning said that there was no distress call from the doomed aircraft, which sent a jolting wake-up call of debris and fire shortly after take off into the sleepy neighborhood.

The National Transportation Safety Board is nearing completion of its portion of the investigation, spokesperson Josh Cawthra said Thursday. The agency has located all major parts of the Cessna 310R, and remnants will be sent to Washington, D.C., for analysis.

The report is expected to be completed in five days, he said. Autopsies and toxicology tests will be performed, per standard procedure.

The aircraft's first communication was with the air control tower; its last recorded communication was take-off clearance, he said.

All three men aboard the plane were killed, but no one on the ground was injured, a fact which Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District called "a miracle."

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.

Cessna 310Rs can travel between 80 and 100 mph during takeoff, according to one aviation source.

But something went wrong. The plane failed to make a turn over the bay as dictated by the Palo Alto Airport's noise-abatement guidelines, which suggest that pilots turn 10 degrees to the right in the direction of the Dumbarton Bridge.

Instead, the Cessna veered sharply left then hit a high-voltage power line and 100-foot-tall steel transmission tower.

Several experienced pilots said a sharp veering in a twin-engine plane could indicate a power failure in one of the engines, but they said they were not speculating on Wednesday's crash.

The top of the tower partially collapsed, severing several live wires that fell to the ground.

"It was a serious situation," Schapelhouman said, noting the danger to the emergency crews dispatched to the power line site.

One of the plane's wings, loaded with fuel for the flight to Hawthorne Municipal Airport near Los Angeles, was severed by the impact with either the power line or tower and sailed several hundred feet into the back end of a home that doubles as a day care/preschool center on Beech Street near Pulgas Avenue. Small sections of the power line were found embedded in the wing.

The wing burst into flames, setting the home on fire. A woman feeding a baby in the day care center ran out along with six others 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 an engine crashed into the carport next door, destroying it. The engine, continuing to hurtle, then slammed through the wall of the garage at a third home, where it was found. A vehicle in the carport was smashed, officials reported.

The main fuselage, with the plane's occupants, continued another block, where it ran into a home's front retaining wall, collided with a BMW and set fire to three parked vehicles, including a motorhome, and the front of the house next door.

The fuselage finally came to rest in front of a driveway and then exploded. All that was left after firefighters put out the blaze was a two-foot-tall heap of aluminum metal.

Cawthra said the debris from the aircraft was strewn along 1,200 feet of Beech Street. Schapelhouman 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.

A few residents in the neighborhood who heard the crash and called 911 said the dense morning fog made it difficult for them to know exactly which street — Garden or Beech — to direct emergency personnel to, causing some delays.


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