2004 Apr 14 - I-680

2004 Apr 14 - I-680

SFGate PLEASE CREDIT photo by Robert Wolgamotti
Four people, including a 12-year-old boy, died Thursday in Concord when their small private plane struck Highway 4 and crashed onto the roadway during rainy weather while trying to make a second landing at Buchanan Field, officials said.

The crash occurred at 11 a.m. as the pilot was attempting to land at the airport, two hours after leaving Montgomery Field in San Diego, authorities said. The pilot reported being "too far off course" during the first landing attempt, officials said. No one on the ground was injured.

The identities of the dead weren't released pending notification of family. None of the victims is from the Bay Area, said Jimmy Lee, Contra Costa County sheriff's spokesman. Autopsies are scheduled for today.

Traffic was delayed throughout the day because of the crash, with motorists slowing in the rain to look at the wreckage. The two eastbound lanes of Highway 4, which abuts the airport, were closed for six hours from the Interstate 680 junction to Solano Way.

The 12-year-old boy, who was conscious when rescuers found him, later died at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek while undergoing emergency surgery, said California Highway Patrol Officer Scott Yox.

Four people were onboard the six-seat, single-engine Piper PA-46 Malibu: two women, a man and the boy.

Records show that the plane was built in 1989 and has been registered since 1999 to John Frank Mauricio, 78, a pilot who lives in Las Vegas.

"When it came in, it appeared to have made too low of an approach, and according to witnesses and evidence on the scene, it struck the freeway," Yox said.

The plane hit the ground between the east and westbound sides of the highway, tumbled across the roadway and came to rest on the south side of the eastbound lanes, less than 100 feet from Highway 4 and near a chain-link fence that borders nearby Marsh Drive. The plane went down at least 1,000 feet from the end of the runway, Yox said.

Rescue personnel from the airport and the Contra Costa County Fire Department found the plane engulfed in a raging fire, Yox said. They put out the fire, keeping it from the passenger compartment, entered the plane and removed two people: a deceased man and the boy.

Yox said the boy, who was found between the front pilot seats and the back passenger seats, was alert and conscious, but had suffered blunt-force trauma and broken bones. He was able to respond to rescuers, he said.

"He knew it was the holiday season," Yox said.

Several hours after the crash, coroner's officials removed the bodies from the scene. Debris still littered the roadway, and the smell of the plane's fuel lingered in the air. The plane was covered with a red tarp to preserve the scene.

Henry Sickels, general manager of Gibbs Flying Service, which handles between 50 and 100 departures a day at the San Diego airport, said the pilot was a regular Gibbs customer but was not based there.

"He's a frequent transient customer -- he's here often, I don't know where he comes from," Sickels said. "There was nothing abnormal about any of it. He's a normal customer and he got on the airplane and departed. Nothing was unusual."

Gary Reardon, an assistant office manager at Lithia Dodge Concord, next to the airport and Highway 4, said he was standing outside in one of the service bays with another employee when he heard an engine and looked up.

"There are always planes coming over the dealership, since we're right next to the airport," he said. "I kind of saw a plane that looked like it was coming in at a steep angle -- it was banking hard to get to one of the runways. I mentioned to the service manager, 'That guy is coming in steep' -- then the plane disappeared behind some trees, and the service manager said, 'Oh my God, it crashed!' We saw a ball of fire and black smoke.

"It was a very scary, very surreal moment."

The crash happened two days before the 21st anniversary of the Dec. 23, 1985, disaster that occurred when a plane trying to land at the same airfield crashed into nearby Sunvalley Mall, killing seven people and injuring 78.

On April 13, 2004, a Piper Turbo plane crashed on I-680 shortly after leaving Buchanan Field. The plane landed on a minivan and nearly severed the left leg of Arianna Jimenez, then 11, who was in the vehicle. Officials determined the crash was the fault of a mechanic who had worked on the plane.

In October, Arianna received an $820,000 settlement from the county, a plane parts manufacturer, the mechanic and the pilot, said the family's attorney, Gerald Sterns of Oakland.

Each crash revived concerns over the airport's location in a populated area.

Sterns said Thursday that his arguments in Arianna's civil case could be summarized as, "This is going to happen again. Don't say you haven't been warned. You have a problem the way this damn airport is set up in the middle of a commercial area, that any time any airplane gets in any trouble, somebody, a building or child or whatever is going to be at risk."

Former Contra Costa County Supervisor and newly elected Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier, who unsuccessfully tried to get Buchanan moved several years ago, said Thursday, "The financial, legal and political ability to move an airport in this country is very difficult. Anything you could look at to prevent something like this from happening is a healthy exercise."