RIVERSIDE >> At least four people were killed and two were injured Monday when a plane nosedived into a Riverside neighborhood shortly after takeoff, destroying two houses and starting a fire that burned for hours.
Firefighters believed three to five more people may have been inside the houses, and hours later were still looking for additional victims, Riverside Fire Chief Michael Moore said.
The plane had been carrying five people — a husband and wife, and three teenagers — who had attended a weekend cheerleading competition at Disneyland, Moore said. The Cessna 310 had just taken off from Riverside Municipal Airport to return home to San Jose when, for reasons still unknown, it went down about 4:40 p.m. a mile east of the airport, setting several houses ablaze on Rhonda Road.
The impact felt like an earthquake, neighbors said, and sent up a “big orange ball of fire” that could be seen blocks away.
The four dead had been in the airplane, Moore said during an evening news conference. The fifth plane passenger, a teenage girl, survived, suffering what Moore called “very minor injuries.” She was taken to Riverside Community Hospital.
“Upon impact, the plane pretty much split apart, and luckily she was ejected,” Moore said.
A resident of one of the homes suffered “very critical” injuries and was taken to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton to undergo surgery. That hospital has the closest burn unit, though Moore did not say that was why the victim was taken there.
In addition to the two houses that were destroyed, other adjacent homes sustained moderate damage, Moore said.
The wreckage was scattered at least a half-mile away. Houses on several surrounding streets, about 20 of them, were being evacuated so the National Transportation Safety Board can do a thorough assessment.
Moore said about 8 p.m. that he was expecting NTSB investigators to arrive at any minute.
While he said he imagined that Monday’s weather — it rained much of the day and was cloudy at the time of the crash — could have contributed to the cause, “I don’t have that information.”
He said the teenage survivor didn’t talk to firefighters about what happened in the plane.
It was unknown how long the NTSB investigation would last or when the evacuation would be lifted.
The local American Red Cross chapter set up an emergency shelter at the nearby Joyce Jackson Community Center. It was prepared for up to 40 people, offering water, snacks, cots and counselors, chapter spokesman Tony Briggs said.
“We’ll be open as long as they need us to be,” Executive Director Lois Beckman said.
The names and hometowns of the deceased have not yet been released. At one point during the news conference, Moore said he believed the people on the plane were all a family, but later he said he was not sure whether they were all related. A witness who helped pull the pilot out of the plane said she kept calling for her daughter.
Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim hosted the United Spirit Association Jr. Nationals cheerleading competition on Saturday and Sunday.
“It’s horrible, especially when you couple together that they were going to a cheer competition and this was supposedly a happy time, and then just to have a tragic incident like this — and then into one of our Riverside residences that I’m sure always have that mild fear of something happening,” Moore said. “It’s really just a sad, sad case for us.”
Moore said the belief that more people may have been inside the destroyed houses was partially based on the number of cars seen in the driveways. He said fire officials were looking for residents or relatives to help them identify who may have been inside.
As he spoke about 8 p.m., he said the fire was still burning. The plane had had a mostly full tank of fuel, and quite a bit of it got spread around the scene, he said.
‘IT LOOKED LIKE A STUNT PLANE’
Brian Marsh said he saw the plane go down as he was driving west on Central Avenue.
“I thought it was turning to go back to Riverside (Municipal) Airport,” he said by phone. “It made a turn and the wings were almost perpendicular to the ground. It looked like a stunt plane. (Then) it turned and went into a nosedive. All of a sudden it turned into a freefall.
“Flames were everywhere. Smoke was billowing out,” Marsh said.
Elizabeth Espinoza happened to be looking out her parents’ bedroom window from their home on Walter Street when she saw a plane that “was just going down.”
“There was no flames on the plane. It was just going down,” she said. She also heard a loud boom.
“I was kind of in a panic,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza and her sisters were among the dozens of spectators who congregated outside to watch as a fleet of fire engines, ambulances, police cars and more than 60 firefighters worked at the scene.
Another bystander, Ken Sampson, who had been in his backyard when the plane went down, said he is used to seeing planes flying over the neighborhood. What struck him this time was that the plane wasn’t coming down at a proper angle — it looked too steep.
Then, he said, he saw a “big orange ball of fire.” The flames shot so high that he could see them from his house six blocks away.
NEIGHBORS PULL OUT PILOT
Marvinus Johnson, 31, and Breonna Johnson, 27, who live two houses to the right of where the plane crashed, were inside when they heard a boom and saw flames.
Breonna thought a train had derailed.
The impact blew out their front two windows, Marvinus said. A wing of the plane also crashed into their house.
They ran outside to help.
Marvinus said a man wearing a blue jacket was already there, near the plane. He said they saw the pilot crawling out. The man in the blue jacket pulled her first and Marvinus helped by grabbing her leg. They laid her across the street.
The pilot said her daughter and four other people were inside the plane, Marvinus said.
“The pilot was asking about her daughter the whole time,” Breonna said. “We stayed next to the pilot to make sure she was OK — to check on her breathing.”
Marvinus added, “We were holding her and all she kept saying was, ‘My daughter, my daughter.’”
Marvinus said they went back to the crash site, but the flames were too much.
The Johnsons are in the health field and said it was first instinct to help. She’s a nurse and he recently graduated from a respiratory therapist program.
“We’re used to being in situations where there is chaos,” he said.
Javier Gutierrez Jr., 15, heard the explosion and ran to the scene, where he saw a woman who identified herself as the pilot lying on the ground.
“She was covered in charcoal,” Gutierrez said. “She didn’t seem like she had very bad burns at all. She looked OK. She wasn’t screaming. She was just kind of talking about it. I think she was in shock.”
IT WAS LIKE AN EARTHQUAKE
Alberto Torres lives on Juanro Way, one street over from Rhonda Road. When he heard the crash and saw the flames, he said, he ran across the street to help his elderly neighbor, whose house backs up to the houses where the plane crashed.
The fire was on the other side of their back fence, so he tried watering it until his son said to leave. Torres said he and his son wrapped their neighbor in a blanket and brought her to their house for safety.
Bystander Amador Islaf, who lives a few blocks away on Walter Street, said the impact made the ground move — “it felt like a little earthquake.”
It also felt like an earthquake to H.L. Reyes, who lives about a mile from the scene and spoke by phone shortly after the crash.
“We all jumped up,” Reyes said. “Even the birds outside reacted.”
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