YORBA LINDA, Calif. (AP) — A small plane shook homes and “sounded like a missile” as it broke apart and rained chunks of metal into a Southern California neighborhood, igniting a house fire that killed four people, witnesses said Monday.
The pilot, a retired Chicago police officer living in Nevada, also died Sunday. Investigators were collecting pieces of the plane that fell into homes across about four blocks in Yorba Linda, a community southeast of Los Angeles.
“The witnesses I’ve spoken with say that they saw the airplane coming out of the clouds — it was still in one piece — and then they saw the tail breaking off and then the wing breaking off and then something like smoke before the airplane impacted the ground,” said Maja Smith, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
Those witnesses did not report an explosion while the twin-engine propeller-driven Cessna 414A was in the air, she said.
Antonio Pastini, 75, of Gardnerville, Nevada, was the only person aboard, Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Cory Martino said.
Authorities were trying to identify the people who died in the house, describing them only as two males and two females. Martino said DNA may be required because of the condition of the bodies.
Two other people were hospitalized with moderate injuries, he said.
Yorba Linda resident Dave Elfver said he was getting ready to go to a friend’s house to watch the Super Bowl when he heard a whining sound “like a motorcycle going a hundred miles per hour.”
“The whole house shook. I thought it was an earthquake, but the whining sound didn’t make any sense.”
Elfver, 75, said he ran to his backyard and saw a house engulfed in flames. He ran toward it along with a crowd of neighbors, and only then he saw an airplane wing in the street.
“I didn’t realize what it was until I ran around the corner,” he said Monday.
Across the street, one of the columns of a neighbor’s home was collapsed and debris from the plane was strewn throughout the street. Another home had broken windows.
Shawn Winch, 49, said he was in his backyard when he heard what “sounded like a missile coming at my house.” He said he saw the plane veer off and debris falling.
“It wasn’t intact,” he said as the plane came toward the neighborhood. “It was already breaking up.”
The aircraft, which can carry up to eight people, took off from the Fullerton Municipal Airport about 12 miles (19 kilometers) away, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said.
Preliminary radar data shows the plane reached about 7,800 feet (2,377 meters) and then rapidly fell, said Eliott Simpson, a NTSB investigator.
The main cabin of the airplane and one engine were found at the bottom of a ravine in the backyard of a house, and the other engine made a hole in the street, Simpson said.
The property where the fuselage ended up is about three houses down from the home that burned. It was not immediately clear what set the two-story house ablaze.
A portion of the plane’s right wing had not been found, and investigators would search the burned house, Smith said. The Cessna 414A carries fuel in its wings.
John Cox, an aviation consultant, is confident investigators will figure out why the plane broke apart. Aircraft involved in mid-air breakups leave “fingerprints” — tell-tale signs — in the metal that will allow investigators to “build a sequence of the breakup that will lead them back to where it originated,” said Cox, a former commercial pilot who’s head of the consulting firm Safety Operating Systems.
Video showed panicked residents running to the house as flames and dark smoke engulfed it. One man used a garden house to douse a burning wing that landed on the street.
Some tried to run into the burning house, but explosive sounds came from its garage and neighbors called them off, Winch said.
Clint Langford said he was in his living room when he heard a frightening sound.
“It’s the eerie, low rumbling sound that keeps getting lower and louder. It was scary,” he said. “And then all of a sudden boom. It shook the house.”
Video from news helicopters showed plane parts scattered on roofs and driveways. Smith said at least 15 homes had debris.
Investigators will look into the maintenance record structural integrity of the aircraft, as well as the pilot’s record, Smith said. The wreckage will be transported to Phoenix, Arizona, for a forensic examination.
Associated Press journalists John Antczak, Amanda Lee Myers and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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