SANTEE, Calif. - A small plane crashed in a densely populated San Diego suburb Monday, killing two people, including a UPS driver and an Arizona physician, and leaving a trail of destruction that sent neighbors scrambling to save neighbors. At least two others were injured.
Neighbors described the dramatic rescue of a retired couple from one of two burning homes that were destroyed in Santee, a suburb of 50,000 people. Ten other homes were damaged.
Several vehicles, including the UPS delivery truck, were also torched.
"Not to be too graphic, but it’s a pretty brutal scene," Justin Matsushita, Santee’s deputy fire chief, said as firefighters searched the smoldering ruins.
United Parcel Service of America Inc. confirmed one of its workers died.
"We are heartbroken by the loss of our employee, and extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends," the company said. "We also send our condolences for the other individuals who are involved in this incident, and their families and friends."
The crash also killed Dr. Sugata Das, who worked at Yuma Regional Medical Center in Arizona, the hospital’s chief medical officer said.
"As an outstanding cardiologist and dedicated family man, Dr. Das leaves a lasting legacy legacy," Dr. Bharat Magu said in a statement. "We extend our prayers and support to his family, colleagues, and friends during this difficult time."
Das was director of the Power of Love Foundation, a non-profit organization that is involved in helping women and children overseas that are infected or affected by AIDS and HIV, according to its website.
The website said Das, the father of two boys, lived in San Diego and was the owner of a twin-engine Cessna 340 and an instrument-rated pilot who flew between his home and Yuma.
It was unclear how many people were aboard the plane, although fire officials say nobody aboard would have survived the crash.
The condition of the injured couple wasn’t immediately known.
The plane was heading in to land at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego when it nosedived into the ground. Shortly before, when the plane was about a half-mile from the runway, an air traffic controller alerted the pilot that the aircraft was too low.
"Low altitude alert, climb immediately, climb the airplane," the controller tells the pilot in audio obtained by KSWB-TV.
The controller repeatedly urges the plane to climb to 5,000 feet, and when it remains at 1,500 feet warns: "You appear to be descending again, sir."
KGTV posted video the station said it received from a viewer showing the plane arcing in the sky and then plunging into the neighborhood in a burst of flames.
People a block away from the scene said their homes shook from the thunderous crash. Michael Keeley, 43, ran barefoot outside and saw flames engulfing the UPS truck and a home on the corner. He joined two neighbors at the burning home calling through an open window.
A second home was also in flames. But no one appeared to be home.
With thick smoke inside the home and flames licking the roof, Keeley reached through the window to grab the woman’s arm and help her climb out. Her forearms were burned, and her hair was singed, he said.
"I’m glad I didn’t have to go inside with my bare feet," said Keeley, a probation officer.
At the same time, other neighbors knocked down the couple’s fence to rescue the woman’s husband from the backyard.
Keeley said after the couple escaped to the sidewalk, the woman pleaded for help for her dog that was believed to be inside the home.
"She kept saying, ‘My puppy, my puppy,’ " he said.
But moments later, there were explosions inside the home. The group helped the couple walk a safe distance away until paramedics arrived.
Andrew Pelloth, 30, lives across the street from the couple and was working from home when he heard a whirring and then a huge boom.
"My initial thought was that it was a meteorite coming down," he said. "I could hear it falling, and then some kind of explosion."
Pelloth looked outside and first saw the UPS truck on fire. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and then joined other neighbors who pulled the boards off the couple’s fence to rescue the woman’s husband.
Erik Huppert, 57, who ran down to help after his house shook, said he saw the man walking in the backyard after they pulled off the boards.
"Both were definitely in shock, but at least they were alive," said Huppert, a military contractor.
No one was home at the other house that was destroyed, which sold only a month ago, Pelloth said. He met the new owner Monday as he arrived to see the damage.
The plane was a twin-engine Cessna C340, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
It was believed to be a private aircraft flying from Yuma to Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego, Santee’s deputy fire chief said.
The crash happened about three blocks from Santana High School, which said on Twitter that "all students are secure."
The crash site is a few miles north of Gillespie Field, a small San Diego County airport.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate.
Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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