By Dana Feldman
SANTA MONICA, California (Reuters) - At least three people, including a wealthy California construction executive, were believed killed in the fiery crash-landing of a small jet at Santa Monica airport after a flight from Idaho's Sun Valley resort area, officials said on Monday.
The twin-engine Cessna Citation 525A veered off the right side of the runway as it touched down at Santa Monica Municipal Airport west of Los Angeles on Sunday evening, slammed into a hangar and burst into flames, airport and federal safety officials said.
The lead on-scene investigator, Van McKenny of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he was not at liberty to discuss what might have caused the plane to swerve off the runway. He said any problems with the landing gear or other possible factors would be covered by the crash investigation.
A witness identified as Charles Thomson told local television station KCAL-TV that a tire on the plane's landing gear appeared to blow out as it was landing.
"It wasn't an emergency landing," Thomson said. "It was just a landing, and the tire popped afterwards."
News pictures taken shortly after the crash showed billowing black smoke curling up over aircraft at the airport, which serves communities west of downtown Los Angeles. Subsequent images showed the tail of an aircraft protruding from the partly collapsed hangar, flanked by fire trucks.
Everyone on the plane was presumed killed, though the number of people aboard the aircraft remained to be determined, McKenny said.
"We haven't had any indication that there are ground fatalities at this time," he said.
The private hangar demolished in the crash was partly owned by filmmaker and pilot Tony Bill, who shared a best-picture Academy Award in 1974 for his work as a producer of "The Sting," which starred Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
Bill said his own aircraft, an Italian-made aerobatics plane, was destroyed in the accident, along with a truck, a car and a motorcycle he kept parked in the hangar. "My assumption is that everything in there is roasted," he told Reuters.
WRAPPED AROUND AIRCRAFT
The force of the collision left the interior of the hangar wrapped around the Cessna, preventing authorities from reaching the fuselage for many hours after the crash, McKenny said.
He said investigators were waiting for the arrival of two cranes that would lift the collapsed roof off the aircraft and help shore up the fallen structure, permitting safe access to wreckage, hopefully later in the day.
Two of the presumed victims were identified by Santa Monica-based construction firm Morley Builders, which said in a statement that its chief executive, Mark Benjamin, and his son, Luke, a senior project engineer, were among those on the plane.
The elder Benjamin was also a board member of the Idaho Conservation League, and a spokeswoman for that organization, Aimee Moran, said Luke Benjamin's girlfriend was also believed to have been on board the plane, along with Mark Benjamin's golden retriever.
Mark Benjamin, 63, was a pilot and owner of the plane who flew frequently between his primary residence in the Los Angeles area and his second home in Ketchum, Idaho, near the Sun Valley ski resort in the Rocky Mountains of central Idaho, Moran said.
He was apparently at the controls of the aircraft when it crashed, she said, but that has yet to be confirmed.
The Cessna Citation family of jets has a seating capacity of five to nine people, and the model that crashed is believed to have seating for a pilot, co-pilot and six passengers.
Captain John Nevandro of the Santa Monica Fire Department said the circumstances of the crash made it "an unsurvivable crash."
(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Laura Zuckerman from Salmon, Idaho, also contributed to this report; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Leslie Adler, Cynthia Osterman and Steve Orlofsky)