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Santa Monica plane crash: Victims believed to be CEO, son

September 30, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
The CEO of a local construction company and his son were believed to be aboard a small private jet that crashed at Santa Monica Airport.

"We believe that our president and CEO, Mark Benjamin, and his son, Luke Benjamin, a senior project engineer with us, were on board," said Charles Muttillo, vice president at Morley Builders, in a statement.

A team from the National Transportation Safety Board has arrived at the crash site. By Monday night, much of the charred wreckage of the twin-engine Cessna 525A was pried from the hangar that collapsed on top of it. Two huge cranes were brought in to remove heavy steel trusses covering the plane.

"The hangar itself kind of collapsed down, so that the steel trusses are crossing over the airframe. Also, when the airplane impacted the hangar, the walls of the hangar kind of wrapped around the fuselage," said NTSB investigator Van McKenny.

The plane crashed around 6:20 p.m. Sunday. It touched down at the airport, crashed into a hangar and burst into flames. McKenny says there was no communication with the pilot indicating any kind of problem prior to landing.

"It just looks like he veered off the right side of the runway and as he continued down, the turn got sharper and sharper," said McKenny.

It is unclear how many people were on board the jet at the time of the crash, or if anyone was inside the hangar. That type of Cessna can carry up to eight passengers and two crew members. Fire crews have called the crash "unsurvivable."

One eyewitness, a flight instructor at the airport, said he saw the plane touch down at the airport.

"I watched it land, it was a perfectly normal landing," said Charles Thomson. "It wasn't an emergency landing. It was just a landing, and the tire popped afterwards."

NTSB investigators say there is a voice recorder on the plane, but they have not been able to recover it yet. They're hoping it will shed some light on what happened.

Officials said the jet departed from Hailey, Idaho. Morley Builders is a well known construction company throughout Southern California. It has offices in Santa Monica, Irvine and San Diego. It's been a business since 1947.

Meantime, a vintage airplane was also lost in the crash. It was inside one of the hangars destroyed by the fire. Hangar owner Robert Chandler says the classic plane was supposed to be moved into a local museum on Friday, but the move was delayed.

"It was a 1953 Cessna 195, which is a magnificent radial engine personal transport of that era. There are fewer of them and I'm afraid there's one less now," said Chandler.

The crash has revived the debate over airport safety. Santa Monica airport sits in the middle of a crowded residential area. There is growing pressure to shut the airport down.

"The crash occurred 150 feet away from houses. I mean, that's the really scary thing. In the two years that we've lived here, there have been two crashes. There was one two blocks away and then this one," said Santa Monica resident Stacey Abrams-Sherick.

When the airport was built back in the 1920s, it was surrounded by farm land. The residential neighborhoods surrounding the airport today sprouted up decades later.

A 30-year land and building agreement between the city of Santa Monica and the Federal Aviation Administration will expire in 2015.

Martin Rubin, who is with the group Concerned Residents Against Air Pollution, says his group is working on closing the airport so it can be turned into a park. He admits that is an uphill battle, but says Sunday's crash raises more concerns about safety.

"Neighbors around the airport have very much been concerned about possible crash of a jet. This is the minor type of crash that could happen. Had this been a takeoff or in bad weather, one of these jets goes askew and actually goes into a bunch of homes, it'd be even far worse than this tragedy is," said Rubin.