SANTEE, Calif. (AP) — A twin-engine plane that killed at least two people and left a swath of destruction in a San Diego suburb nose-dived into the ground after repeated warnings that it was flying dangerously low, according to a recording.
The Cessna 340 smashed into a UPS van, killing the driver, and then hit houses just after noon Monday in Santee, a suburb of 50,000 people. The pilot also is believed to have died, and at least two people on the ground were hurt, including a woman who was helped out the window of a burning home by neighbors.
An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board was expected to be at the scene Tuesday morning, according to an agency tweet.
The plane was heading in to land at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego when it crashed. Shortly before, when the plane was about a half-mile from the runway, an air traffic controller alerted the pilot that the aircraft was too low.
“Low altitude alert, climb immediately, climb the airplane,” the controller tells the pilot in audio obtained by KSWB-TV.
The controller repeatedly urges the plane to climb to 5,000 feet, and when it remains at 1,500 feet warns: “You appear to be descending again, sir.”
KGTV-TV, an ABC affiliate, posted video the station said it received from a viewer showing the plane arcing in the sky and then plunging into the neighborhood in a burst of flames.
The plane was owned by Dr. Sugata Das, who may have been piloting the aircraft and died in the crash.
He worked at Yuma Regional Medical Center in Arizona, the hospital’s chief medical officer said.
Das, a licensed pilot, lived in San Diego and commuted back and forth to Yuma, according to a website for a non-profit organization he served as director. He leaves two young sons.
United Parcel Service of America Inc. confirmed one of its workers died, although the employee’s name wasn’t immediately released.
People a block away from the scene said their homes shook from the thunderous crash.
Neighbors ran to help and helped rescue a couple believed to be in their 70s from one burning home.
Michael Keeley, 43, ran barefoot outside and saw flames engulfing the UPS truck and a home on the corner. He joined two neighbors at the burning home in calling through an open window.
With thick smoke inside the home and flames licking the roof, Keeley reached through the window to grab a woman’s arm and help her climb out. Her forearms were burned, and her hair was singed, he said.
“I’m glad I didn’t have to go inside with my bare feet,” said Keeley, a probation officer.
At the same time, other neighbors knocked down the couple’s fence to rescue the woman’s husband from the backyard.
Keeley said after the couple escaped to the sidewalk, the woman pleaded for help for her dog that was believed to be inside the home.
“She kept saying, ‘My puppy, my puppy,’ ” he said.
But moments later, there were explosions inside the home. The group helped the couple walk a safe distance away until paramedics arrived.
Andrew Pelloth, 30, lives across the street from the couple and was working from home when he heard a whirring and then a huge boom.
“My initial thought was that it was a meteorite coming down,” he said. “I could hear it falling, and then some kind of explosion.”
Pelloth looked outside and saw the UPS truck on fire. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and then joined other neighbors who pulled the boards off the couple’s fence to rescue the woman’s husband.
Erik Huppert, 57, who ran down to help after his house shook, said he saw the man walking in the backyard after they pulled off the boards.
“Both were definitely in shock, but at least they were alive,” said Huppert, a military contractor.
No one was home at the other house that was destroyed, which sold only a month ago, Pelloth said.
Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.