1985 Dec 23 - Sunvalley Mall

23 December 1985

A plane crash showered debris and burning fuel into a shopping mall crowded with children waiting to see Santa Claus here Monday night, killing 4 people and injuring 88.

The twin-engine plane, attempting to land at a fogged-in airport nearby, rammed through the roof of a Macy's store at the Sunvalley Mall about 35 miles east of San Francisco.

All three people aboard the plane were killed along with a woman who suffered extensive burns in the shopping mall. Eighteen people remained hospitalized, nine in critical condition with burns, Seventy others were treated and released, according to spokesmen at the nine hospitals that received victims of the crash.

William Maxfield, Chief of the Contra Costa County Consolidated Fire District, said today that the incident reflected his worst fears. ''An aircraft crashing into Sunvalley shopping center two nights before Christmas, all loaded up like it was -that's one nightmare we've always been expecting, with the airport as close as it is in the fog,'' Mr. Maxfield said.

''It was a mess, a real ugly mess,'' said David Sylstra, the Police Chief of nearby San Pablo, who was in the 160-store shopping center when the plane crashed 50 feet from him.

''I freaked out,'' he said today. ''I thought this was a terrorist bombing at first because that's the way people looked.

A long line of children was waiting to visit Santa when the plane crashed through the roof above them.

''It was horrible,'' said the wet, soot-covered Santa, who identified himself only as Christopher. ''I felt something explode behind me. Thank God I didn't have a child in my lap.''

The pilot of the Beechcraft Baron was flying by instruments when he radioed a ''missed approach'' at Buchanan Field, just under a mile from the mall, and told the tower he was going around to try again. The plane dropped off radar screens and crashed.

The airport's manager, Harold Wight, said visibility at the field was about three-quarters of a mile, the minimum for landings there.

Tentative Identifications

The Contra Costa County coroner's office tentatively identified three of the dead as James Mountain Graham, 67, and John Frederick Lewis, 48, both of Oakland, and Brian Ward Oliver, 23, of Alamo. A spokesman for the coroner's office who declined to be identified said all three were aboard the plane.

The person in the mall who died was identified as Pam Stanford, 22, of Antioch. She suffered burns over 80 percent of her body and died today at San Francisco General Hospital, the authorities reported.

Mr. Graham was a former president of General Air Services Inc. at Buchanan Field, Mr. Oliver was employed by the company and Mr. Lewis was a friend of Mr. Graham, the company said.

This morning, in the chilly fog, the plane's severed tail could be seen hanging from the roof of the two-level mall. Sodden debris littered the floor of the central portion of the sprawling mall.

Officials said the plane's fuel rained into the mall through a gaping 50-foot-wide hole punched into the roof. Burning fuel flowed down an escalator; melting tar and red-hot sheets of metal fell from the roof, and acrid smoke blanketed the panicked crowd.

'He Was on Fire'

''I saw a person on fire, calling for help in the plane,'' said Vincent Amsden, 14 years old, who saw the nose of the plane pushing through the roof. ''He was on fire, but he died and fell down.''

''All of a sudden there was pandemonium everywhere,'' said Jenny McCoy, 19, of Walnut Creek, who returned to the mall today. ''People were running and screaming.''

Lieut. Richard Gordy of the police said that the injuries ranged from smoke inhalation to burns. At Children's Hospital in Oakland four children, one a 15-month-old boy, were in serious or critical condition.

''Many of them were burned by flaming fuel,'' said Dr. Michael Burchele at nearby Mount Diablo Hospital. ''The effect was like napalm.''

Federal Aviation Administration officials were on the scene to search for the cause of the wreck.