Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Update on King Air 200 crash at Long Beach

Five people died Wednesday and one man was critically injured after the twin-engine plane they were flying in crashed shortly after takeoff, erupting into a fireball at the Long Beach Airport.

Four of the victims were identified as prominent real estate developers Tom Dean and Jeff Berger, bicycle advocate Mark Bixby, and Bruce Krall, who was Dean's banker. The pilot also died in the crash but has not yet been identified.

The lone survivor, identified by sources as Pacific Retail Partners owner Mike Jensen, was rushed to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center where he remains in Critical Condition.

The Beechcraft King Air, owned by Dean, crashed and burst into flames on the southwest portion of the airfield at 10:30 a.m., authorities said.

(Photo by Steve Gritchen -Long Beach Press Telegram)

Firefighters battled flames for about two minutes before using metal-cutting saws to pry open the twisted remains of the fuselage and free the survivor, said Long Beach Fire Department spokesman Steve Yamamoto.

Authorities said the plane had taken off but was circling back for an unknown reason when it suddenly crashed and skidded across the field, leaving a trail of scorched debris.

Witnesses described hearing a loud thud followed by a burst of fire and smoke.

"I heard a bang and the building shook," said Rob Ryan, whose office is located about 600 feet from the crash. "I came out and the plane was completely engulfed in orange flames and black smoke. After it died down a bit you could see fire coming out of the cockpit. It was pretty horrifying."

One witness, who asked not to be identified, said he saw the crash seconds after the aircraft hit the ground.

"It was just a big ball of fire sliding across the grass," he said.

Los Angeles County Coroner's Lt. Ed Winter said victims' identities were still being officially confirmed late Wednesday and it would likely take time due to the condition of the bodies.

However Dean's spokesman, Mike Murchison, confirmed the well-known developer was aboard the plane and died in the crash the along with Berger, Krall and Bixby. Bixby, who worked for Jensen, is a member of one of the city's founding families, for which the Bixby Knolls neighborhood is named.

Allan Crawford, a friend of Bixby, said the group was headed for Park City, Utah, to go skiing.

Several distraught family members and friends, including Murchison and City Councilman Gary DeLong, rushed to Long Beach Fire Station 16, where the plan's charred remains could be seen about 300 yards away.

By mid-afternoon, coroner's investigators were on the scene pulling the burned bodies from the wreckage.

Murchison also confirmed the plane was owned by Dean, who owns most of the Los Cerritos Wetlands in southeast Long Beach. Part of the wetlands was traded last year to the city of Long Beach in exchange for most of the city's public service yard in a controversial land swap.

Berger is his business partner. Bixby is known especially for his bicycle advocacy in Long Beach and as recently as March 13 had talked about participating in the Tortuga 500, a 500-mile, 4-day bike trek from San Jose to Long Beach, on his Twitter account.

Crawford said he had just gone bike riding with Bixby and other members of their regular riding group that morning. He and Bixby are members of "Off the Front," a bicycle advocacy group, and were working on a forming a new bicycle non-profit group.

Bixby is survived by his wife, Theresa, and their three children, the oldest of whom is a junior in high school, Crawford said.

"Mark just believed in the idea that cycling is a way to connect people and to connect communities," Crawford said. "He saw it as an avenue to improve lives for people throughout Long Beach and the world."

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said he had a very heavy heart after hearing about the tragedy.

"These were charismatic men that believed in Long Beach, made a real contribution and worked towards a better community," he said. "Our thoughts and prayers go to their children and their families in this time of unspeakable sadness."

Federal Aviation Administration Spokesman Ian Gregor said that the aircraft was headed to Salt Lake City. He said that the FAA and National Transportation and Safety Board already had investigators at the crash site.

Gregor said the plan crashed just north of runway 25 L, between Taxiway Bravo and Runway 16 R near the AirFlite facility.

Authorities said was too early to tell where all the victims were located in the plane, including the area where the survivor was found, citing the on-going investigation.

Both the FAA and NTSB will investigate the accident with the NTSB serving as the lead investigative agency, Gregor said.

NTSB investigators usually post a preliminary report on the agency's website,, within one to two weeks of an incident. However, it typically takes NTSB months to come up with a probable cause for accidents, Gregor explained.

Airport Director Mario Rodriguez said the incident was a "tragedy beyond repair."

"We did everything that could have been done," he said.

Though the crash is not the first for the airport, it is believed to be the first major crash in more than 30 years, Rodriguez said.

(Tracy Manzer - Long Beach Press Telegram)

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