A twin-engine Cessna 310 registered to a Tesla Motors engineer crashed shortly after takeoff this morning in East Palo Alto, wrecking three homes and a day care center and killing all three Tesla employees on board. Miraculously, no one on the ground was injured.
"We are withholding their identities as we work with the relevant authorities to notify the families,'' Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them. Tesla is a small, tightly knit company, and this is a tragic day for us."
The San Mateo County coroner's office had not released the names of the crash victims early this afternoon.
The accident that occurred shortly before 8 a.m. caused a power outage to Palo Alto for much of the day, Shortly before 6 p.m., the lights went back on in downtown Palo Alto.
Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the plane clipped a 100-foot power line on a PG&E high-tension transmission tower not too far away from the Palo Alto Airport runway, where it had taken off just before 8 a.m., headed for Hawthorne Municipal Airport in Southern California. The downed lines sparked a massive power outage across Palo Alto and surrounding areas.
The Cessna is registered to Air Unique Inc., located on a residential street in Santa Clara. According to the California Secretary of State Web site, the business owner is Doug Bourn. The site also states the business license was suspended, without any additional details.
Tesla, which is based in San Carlos, has a design studio in Hawthorne.
No one was home at Bourn's single-story home on Wilson Court this morning, where two motorcycles and a Lexus were in the driveway. Neighbors said he lived alone.
John Clingingsmith described Bourn as a "nice guy and a workaholic." He last saw Bourn when he pulled up about 10 p.m. Tuesday riding one of his Kawasaki motorcycles.
According to an American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Web site, Bourn was an electrical engineer at Tesla, where he helped design and test the power electronics module for the Tesla Roadster. The biography states he received a bachelor's degree from Stanford University, and in his spare time, enjoyed "motorcycling, sky diving, flying and teaching others how to fly." The site states Bourn has held commercial and multi-engine pilot licenses, and has been a flight instructor and a ham radio operator.
Schapelhouman said the crash likely occurred because of "mechanical" difficulties, or "poor visibility" because of this morning's soupy fog, which caused the early-morning cancellations or delays of many flights at the Bay Area's three commercial international airports.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said taking off in bad weather is left up to the discretion of the pilot, whether it be a commercial or private plane. He added that most commercial airlines have policies to follow before a pilot decides to fly.
In foggy or cloudy weather conditions, planes taking of from the Palo Alto Airport go straight down the runway and then turn 60 degrees to the right at 1,000 feet, said Ken Gottfredson, who owns Advantage Aviation, a flying school and club for pilots that operates at the site.
"He was off to the left of center by half a mile," Gottfredson said. "He should have been over the bay."
John Ferrell, a Los Altos Hills pilot who flies out of the Palo Alto Airport about four times a week, said he arrived just after the plane took off.
"You couldn't see 100 yards in front of you," Ferrell said. He noted that under those conditions, a plane can take off but not land because the runway isn't visible.
Piecing together the specific sequence of events before today's crash, Schapelhouman said the plane struck the tower, causing a wing to shear off and land on top of a home day care at 1225 Beech Street, which is now completely destroyed, though all seven people inside, including a baby, escaped without serious injury.
The plane then lost altitude, he said, falling into the densely packed residential area of Beech Street in East Palo Alto. The plane's landing gear was found in front of 1215 Beech Street. The engine got jammed under a carport at 1203 Beech Street.
The fuselage and bodies landed in front of 1180 Beech Street. Along the way, the plane skidded, lighting several cars on fire, which then spread to lawns, bushes and a total of three other houses aside from the day care center.
If the plane didn't land in the middle of the street, Schapelhouman said, "many more individuals would have been impacted, perhaps killed. It is either very fortunate or intentional that he was able to do that."
The FAA will be investigating the cause of the crash with the National Transportation Safety Board, which should be sending inspectors later this afternoon.
What's left of the twin-engine plane is piles of metal. Residents were shocked to start their morning with the thunderous crash of a plane falling from the sky before their very eyes.
"We heard an explosion," said Pamela Houston, who was inside the day care center. "I grabbed the baby and we ran into the street. We were all crying, we were screaming. There is not any word to describe the feeling. Some neighbors ran to the house to help. We are very thankful; we give thanks to God. It was no one but God that allowed us to get out safely."
Ernestina Ibarra saw some of what happened through her bathroom window. Pieces of the plane fell into her back yard.
"I was so scared," she said. "It was terrible."
Tim Hawkins was packing up a moving truck to head to Chicago. He saw the plane out of the corner of his eye.
"It hit the ground and burst into flames," Hawkins said. "I couldn't believe what was happening. I heard screams from the neighbors. I saw trees bursting into the flames. I called for my sister. I called 911."
Joy Wright said her mother owns the house next door where the plane ultimately came to a stop.
"It sounded like the street sweeper coming," she said. Then, "all of the sudden, I kept hearing a big rumbling noise and then a big bang."
Some residents were told to stay indoors. Others congregated outside to see the wreckage, scattered in their neighborhood.
"I heard a loud boom," said Milton Solorzano, who lives nearby. "It was a different sound than the gunshots we often hear around here."
Volunteers with the Silicon Valley chapter of the American Red Cross went to the neighborhood, offering food, shelter and emotional support to those affected, said spokeswoman Cynthia Shaw. The agency was providing emergency housing to those who couldn't immediately return to their homes. Anyone affected by the crash may contact 1-888-4-HELP-BAY.
The crash also sparked a massive and debilitating power outage in most of neighboring Palo Alto. Traffic lights were out on El Camino Real, Stanford Hospital was running on backup generators and clinic appointments on the Stanford campus were canceled. Some storefronts had signs reading, "Closed for the day." Employees in the Stanford Research Park, including those at Hewlett-Packard and the Cooley Godward law firm, also lost power at their offices. A message from Palo Alto advised residents to conserve water and only dial 911 in an emergency.
While schools were without power, they remained in session, according to the Palo Alto Unified School District, though several of the classes usually in rooms without windows were held outside.
PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said the crash knocked down one of the utility's towers and three transmission lines. The city of Palo Alto runs its own utilities, but PG&E owns the lines.
Molica said he hoped to return service to customers today by 5 p.m.
"This is a herculean effort to restore these lines," Molica said. "We're working as quickly and safely as possible to serve these folks."
Bay Area News Group Staff Writers Diana Samuels, Shaun Bishop, Jessica Wax-Bernstein and Dana Hull contributed to this report.
Contact Lisa Fernandez at 408-920-5002.