Death toll rises to four at LA apartment building where plane crashed
June 8, 2003
LOS ANGELES — The death toll rose to four Saturday at an apartment building where a plane crashed and set the structure on fire a block from the trendy Melrose Avenue shopping district.
Seven other people were hurt in the disaster.
As emergency workers sifted through the rubble, residents began returning to retrieve their belongings, saying they were grateful to be alive.
Kevin Du Toit, 28, picked up clothing and medicine for his two young sons, along with family photos, including his wedding album. He had been at work when the plane hit.
His children, ages 2 and 3, normally would have been napping in the apartment at the time, but their mother had taken them to a park.
“It’s a great day. It’s a blessing. It’s a miracle, that’s what it is,” he said. “Because my kids should (have been) sleeping, and their bedroom is right next to where the plane went straight through.”
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A coroner’s team determined around midnight that four people, including the pilot and at least one resident, had been killed, Los Angeles County coroner’s Investigator Mario Sainz said. Their identities were not released.
The search continued for more possible victims, even though Fire Capt. Bill Wick said that all 17 people believed to have been inside the 15-unit building had been accounted for.
“Who knows who might have wandered in there — friends, family,” he said.
The crash occurred Friday afternoon just minutes after the single-engine plane — believed to be a six-seat Beechcraft Bonanza BE-36 — took off from Santa Monica Airport on a flight to Sun Valley, Federal Aviation Administration officials said.
Without explanation and without reporting any problems to the control tower, the plane plunged nose-first into the building about a block from Fairfax High School, where kids were playing on the field, and not far from a synagogue and an area of trendy shops.
The aircraft had been in contact with the tower but did not indicate problems. Authorities said there was no evidence of terrorism.
Larry McQuillen, an actor, returned Saturday to his smoke-smeared apartment and carried out a plastic bag filled with clothing.
“It’s pretty traumatic — you know what the homeless feel like,” he said.
McQuillen said he was reading a book in bed when the plane hit.
“Big explosions shook the building — actually snapped off my door frames,” he recalled. “I opened the door and there was fire toward the front of the hallway. We grabbed the dogs and got out.”
Early Saturday, the crushed, burned wreckage of the plane remained buried under rubble in the basement parking area. Firefighters used lumber purchased at a nearby building supply store to shore up all three stories of the building before recovery operations could begin.
While most apartments were undamaged, city inspectors determined that the building was unsafe and posed an extreme danger to emergency workers.
The aircraft left a crater in the center of the building as it plunged through the roof and two stories of apartments. It hit a car as it landed in the basement parking level. A blade from the propeller was found on the roof.
Among those injured, three were taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. One was treated and released, another transferred to a burn center, and the third was in stable condition Saturday, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Photographer and waiter Casey Cunningham, 25, was upgraded to stable condition at Grossman Burn Center with second- and third-degree burns to 18 percent of his body. He had third-degree burns on his hands, arms, fingers and ears and second-degree burns to his face, head and neck.
“He’s alert. He’s talking,” spokeswoman Jamie Feldstein said.
Cunningham had been concerned about his wife, who is 22 weeks pregnant, but she was at work when the crash occurred. Cunningham had been watching a D-Day remembrance program on television when the plane hit and the living room erupted in flames. He ran through the burning building to escape.
“They lost everything, including two cats,” Feldstein said.
A firefighter suffered a slight hand injury Friday night when he fell about 10 feet through an upper-story floor. He was treated and sent back to work.
Saturday, coroner’s investigators sifted buckets of debris and ash for human remains and plane fragments. Nearby residents tried to learn the fate of friends.
Reuven Giel said his uncle sent him to check on a friend, a man in his 80s.
“I think he’s gone,” Giel said.