Thursday, February 18, 2010

3 Tesla workers die in East Palo Alto plane crash
Jill Tucker, Henry K. Lee,Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writers

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More... (02-17) 19:01 PST EAST PALO ALTO -- It will take months for investigators to determine why a small plane veered off course just after taking off Wednesday from the fogged-in Palo Alto Airport, clipped power lines and plunged into an East Palo Alto neighborhood, killing all three people onboard and damaging four houses.

The path of destruction left residents dazed and emergency officials stunned that no one on the ground was even injured.

All those killed aboard the twin-engine plane worked at Tesla Motors Inc., and the plane was owned by a lead engineer at the Palo Alto electric car company, the firm said.

San Mateo County senior deputy coroner Michelle Rippy said that her office was unable to identify the victims Wednesday and that the coroner expects to determine their identities by Friday.

The plane took off from the Palo Alto Airport at 7:54 a.m., bound for Hawthorne Municipal Airport in Los Angeles County, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Fog limited visibility to only one-eighth of a mile, investigators said.

The 1976 Cessna 310 had flown about a mile northwest when it sliced through high-tension power lines connected to a 60-foot-tall tower. The plane disintegrated in midair, with pieces falling onto a home where a day care center operates, along with other houses and vehicles on Beech Street, said Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

Palo Alto in dark
The impact toppled the top half of the tower and destroyed the electrical-transmission lines that run to neighboring Palo Alto. Power was knocked out for more than 10 hours to all the city's 28,000 customers, including schools and Stanford Hospital, which used a backup generator, city officials said.

The fog is one of many factors that investigators with the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board will examine in their probe of the crash, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.

Pilots can rely on their instruments to tell them where they are when visibility is limited. The person at the controls of the Cessna filed a flight plan indicating he would be using instruments, said Josh Cawthra, an accident investigator with the federal safety board.

"Pilots make the decision on whether it's safe to take off or not," Gregor said. "We provide them with weather information, but we do not tell them whether they can take off."

Federal investigators plan to spend several days at the crash scene, Cawthra said. A final report on the cause of the crash will be issued in six to 12 months.

Tesla's tragedy
Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla, said it was a "tragic day" for the company. While the coroner could not identify the victims, the electric-car maker confirmed that they worked for the company.

The plane was owned by Doug Bourn, 56, a senior electrical engineer for Tesla who holds commercial pilot and flight instructor licenses. Neighbors on the cul-de-sac in Santa Clara where Bourn lives said they had not seen him since Tuesday evening.

His plane came down in several pieces on Beech Street, about 200 feet from where it hit the power lines. Although no one on the ground was hurt, damage was extensive.

A portion of the wing landed on a home at 1225 Beech St. where Eppie's Day Care is located in a separate building. It landed in the yard, a few feet from a play structure, swing set, seesaw and slide. A piece of a power line was entangled in the wing.

The day care center was not damaged, but the home caught fire and is a complete loss, Schapelhouman said.

A wheel and the part of the fuselage fell onto a carport at 1215 Beech, collapsing the structure onto a parked car and a recreational vehicle. Next door, another plane part was wedged into the garage.

Debris from the plane slammed into two parked pickup trucks, setting them on fire, and the rest of the wreckage hit a retaining wall at 1180 Beech.

At the day care center, only one child, an 11-month-old boy, was inside at the time. He was unharmed, said Bre East, 44, of Santa Clara, the cousin of center operator Lisa Jones-Smith.

Everyone in the adjacent home, including Jones-Smith, three of her children, teacher Pamela Houston and an aide also escaped, shaken but unhurt, East said.

The day care center was expecting about a half-dozen other children Wednesday, but they had not yet arrived, East said.

"We're grateful that the kids weren't there," East said. "Everybody's OK. They're safe. The house is gone. You can rebuild, but you can't rebuild lives."

Neighbors said they hadn't heard any noise from the plane until it crashed with a loud boom and shook nearby houses.

Karen Ramirez, 18, said she had just changed her infant daughter's diaper and was about to feed her when she saw flames outside her home. Two seconds later, "the whole house shook. It sounded like thunder," she said.

The trucks that burned were owned by her father-in-law, Ramirez said. One of the trucks is "completely totaled," she said.

Residents in the affected homes were evacuated from the neighborhood, and by late afternoon were still being kept away from the site by investigators probing the crash. Red Cross officials were at the scene to provide them with shelter and food.

Chronicle staff writer Jaxon Van Derbeken contributed to this report. E-mail the writers at, and

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