At least four people are confirmed dead as a private jet crashed into a hanger while landing Sunday evening at the Santa Monica Airport.
According to federal aviation officials, the incident took place at approximately 6:20 p.m., when the twin-engine Cessna Citation touched down and swerved suddenly off the runway, directly into an adjacent storage hanger. The crash collapsed the hanger and sparked a fire that destroyed the small plane, killing everyone on board and causing a complete shutdown of the airport. The plane, which is registered to a real estate company based in Malibu, California, has a maximum occupancy of eight, though only four bodies have been exhumed from the wreckage at this time.
Several witnesses watched the crash unfold, reporting multiple distinct booming sounds. “I watched it land. It was a perfectly normal landing,” said witness Charles Thomson. “It wasn’t an emergency landing, it was just a landing, and the tire popped afterwards.” Nearby resident Angelica Barbosa added, “We ran out to see what was going on, and we could see the smoke. There was chaos everywhere—neighbors running around, sirens everywhere and just a lot of very black smoke and a lot of scared people.”
Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said that the plane had departed from Hailey, Idaho, carrying high ranking personnel from the Morley Construction Company. In a statement released by the company, vice president Charles Muttillo said, “We are aware of a plane crash at Santa Monica Airport last night. While we do not have specific facts, we believe that our President and CEO, Mark Benjamin, and his son, Luke Benjamin, a Senior Project Engineer with us were on board.” The two other bodies that were removed from the scene on Tuesday morning have not yet been identified, and it is unclear if there were still others on board.
Following the crash, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were called to the scene, but the hanger was deemed too unstable to enter. Officials were forced to wait until Monday to begin their inspection, and they hope to be able to reach the plane’s fuselage and voice recorder by Tuesday morning. In the early stages of their investigation, the NTSB is not willing to speculate on what may have caused the plane to veer into the hanger, but there were no reports of any problems from the plane’s pilot before the crash occurred.
Since 1989, there have been eleven reported crashes involving planes departing from or arriving at the Santa Monica Airport. Six crashes took place on airport grounds, two struck homes near the airport, two crashed into the ocean, and another landed in a nearby golf course. Sunday’s fiery crash was the first involving a private jet.
For some local organizations, the crash is yet another mark against the existence of the airport itself. “It’s a warning of what could really happen,” said John Fairweather, the founder of the Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic on Monday. “Obviously we are saddened by those who lost their lives in that plane. Our concern is what would have happened if it hit houses and the fire spread beyond the hanger.” With leases and federal requirements governing the operations of the airport coming to an end in 2015, community activists would like a 227-acre park to be built in its place.
The Federal Aviation Administration has no plans of removing the airport however, citing a 1948 transfer agreement between the US government and the city of Santa Monica requiring the airport to remain in operation after being returned to the city’s ownership after World War II. Agency officials have also assured pilots and aviation-related businesses that they will protect their interests at the airport.
As of Tuesday morning, the airport remains closed to all flights.