SANTEE, Calif. (CNS) – Emergency crews continued the somber task Wednesday of clearing the widespread wreckage caused by a light plane that slammed into a neighborhood near Santana High School and erupted into a fireball, setting homes ablaze and killing the pilot and a UPS driver whose delivery truck was hit by the plummeting aircraft.
The twin-engine Cessna C340 went down at the intersection of Greencastle and Jeremy streets in Santee about 12:15 p.m. Monday while en route from Yuma, Arizona, to Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego, according to county officials and the Federal Aviation Administration.
The resulting inferno gutted two houses, damaged several others and created a debris field covering a full city block. Neighbors pulled a couple in their 70s, identified by relatives as Maria and Phil Morris, from their home as flames engulfed it, and paramedics took them to a hospital for treatment of serious burns, authorities and relatives of the victims told news crews.
Officials at Yuma Regional Medical Center confirmed that the pilot killed in the crash was heart-disease specialist Dr. Sugata Das, 64. Delivery- services company UPS confirmed that one of its drivers also lost his life to the aviation accident.
“As an outstanding cardiologist and dedicated family man, Dr. Das leaves a lasting legacy,” YRMC chief medical officer Bharat Magu said in a prepared statement. “We extend our prayers and support to his family, colleagues and friends during this difficult time.”
In addition to his work at the hospital, Das was a director of the nonprofit Power of Love Foundation, which works to combat AIDS and HIV around the world. According to the foundation’s website, he owned two airplanes, including the Cessna, and regularly flew between Yuma and San Diego, where his family lives. The site states that Das and his wife have two boys, ages 12 and 8.
UPS officials issued a statement Monday saying the company was “heartbroken by the loss of our employee.” The company later confirmed the employee who died was 61-year-old Steve Krueger, who had worked for the company for 30 years. Friends told reporters he was just months away from retiring.
“We are heartbroken by the loss of our driver Steve Krueger, and extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” according to a UPS statement Tuesday. “Those who knew Steve said he took pride in his work, and his positive attitude and joyful laugh made the hardest days a little lighter. Steve was held in high regard and will be greatly missed.”
UPS held a company-wide moment of silence at 12:14 a.m. Tuesday in memory of Krueger. Multiple drivers parked their signature brown UPS delivery trucks on Tuesday near the site of the crash, and some left photos and other tributes near Kruger’s destroyed vehicle.
The National Transportation Safety Board is leading investigations into what led to the crash.
Though pinpointing the cause is expected to take months, radio transmissions between the pilot and an air-traffic controller suggest that Das may have been disoriented just prior to the accident, unsure if his aircraft was ascending or descending.
At one point in the audio, the controller tells the pilot to “climb immediately.”
“It looks like you’re descending sir,” the controller said. “I need to make sure you are climbing, not descending.”
Moments later, the controller says, more urgently, “Low altitude alert. Climb immediately. Climb the airplane.”
The NTSB said the preliminary report on the crash, which includes all the factual information learned to date, is expected to publish 15 days after the crash.
Following the crash, administrators at nearby Santana High School instituted a “secure campus” status following the crash, while confirming that all students were accounted for. The school returned to normal operations by mid-afternoon, according to a campus advisory.
Deputies closed Jeremy Street and North Magnolia Avenue between Mast Boulevard and Second Street while emergency crews worked to extinguish the fires and mitigate other damage caused by the plane crash. Officials temporarily shut off electrical service in the immediate area for safety reasons.
Road closures in the immediate area remained in effect Tuesday afternoon, by which time power had been restored to the neighborhood, according to city officials.
Relatives of the Morrises and of another couple, Cody and Courtney Campbell, whose home burned down due to the crash, have created online contribution sites to help the victims rebuild their lives.
According to the fundraising page for the Morrises, the couple’s dog, Roxie, was lost in the crash and fire. The Morrises are expected to recover, but both suffered second- and third-degree burns to their head, face, arms and hands, their son Jimmy wrote on the page.
Copyright 2021, City News Service, Inc.