RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — Three people died and two were injured when a small plane carrying them home from a cheerleading competition nose-dived into two Southern California homes and sparked a major fire, authorities and witnesses said.
A husband, wife and three teenagers were on the plane that had just taken off from Riverside Municipal Airport at 4:40 p.m. Monday intending to return to San Jose after the weekend cheerleading event at Disneyland when it crashed in the residential neighborhood, Riverside Fire Chief Michael Moore said.
One of the teenagers, a girl, was thrown from a back seat of the plane but suffered only minor injuries, Moore said.
“Upon impact, the plane pretty much split apart, and luckily she was ejected,” he said.
Three witnesses told TV stations the girl crawled from the home asking for help. She was able to talk to firefighters about what had happened as she was taken to Riverside Community Hospital, Moore said.
Witness Brian Marsh, driving nearby, said he saw plane’s wings nearly perpendicular to the ground as it made a turn moments before the crash.
“It looked like a stunt plane. (Then) it turned and went into a nosedive. All of a sudden it turned into a freefall,” he told the Press-Enterprise. “Flames were everywhere. Smoke was billowing out.”
Ken Sampson told the newspaper the flames shot so high that he could see them from his house six blocks away.
Firefighters entered one of the burning houses and pulled out another plane passenger, who was unconscious. That victim underwent surgery at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in San Bernardino and was in critical condition, Moore said.
Three bodies, all from the plane, were found in the wreckage of the aircraft and the homes.
“It’s horrible,” Moore said, especially given that they had gone to a cheerleading competition and it was “supposed to be a happy time.”
Authorities initially said four people died, and that the critically injured victim was a resident of the homes. They later reduced the death toll to three and said all five victims had been on the plane. They have not given the ages or identities of the victims.
All residents of the destroyed homes have been accounted for, Moore said.
Moore did not provide the name of the cheerleading competition, but the Jr. USA Nationals for girls age 15 and under was held at Disney California Adventure Park over the weekend.
The two homes that were hit directly were destroyed, and there was minor damage to neighboring houses, Moore said.
The plane broke into hundreds of pieces, its propeller sitting on the roof of a nearby home, and the fire burning with jet fuel was still ablaze several hours after the crash. Firefighters found plane pieces about a half-mile away.
H.L. Reyes, who lives about a quarter-mile from the crash site, told The Associated Press she felt the ground shake and saw plumes of black smoke.
“I thought it was a possible earthquake, and we heard all the birds just suddenly react outside, too,” Reyes said. “This was just like a nightmare coming true.”
Shannon Flores, a teacher at an elementary school about three blocks away, said she saw the plane out her classroom window. She said it was raining during the crash, though other witnesses said the rain was very light.
“As soon as we saw it fly over, we knew it wasn’t a good thing,” Flores told KABC-TV. “We watched it go down very quickly … Before we knew it, there was a loud crash and huge plumes of smoke.”