Feb. 18, 2010, 1:05 a.m.

EAST PALO ALTO — A twin-engine Cessna 310 crashed soon after takeoff from Palo Alto Airport early Wednesday, killing three Tesla Motors employees on board, cutting off power to Palo Alto and parts of Stanford for much of the day and giving the residents of a small neighborhood a fiery awakening.

The plane took off in thick fog just before 8 a.m., bound for Hawthorne Municipal Airport south of Los Angeles, according to Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. But instead of turning right after takeoff, as is customary to comply with the airport’s noise abatement procedure, the plane flew straight toward a residential area of East Palo Alto, clipping three power lines attached to a 100-foot transmission tower at the eastern end of Beech Street.

Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman points to wreckage near the East Palo Alto crash site. (RYAN MAC/The Stanford Daily)

Reconstructing the crash for reporters, Schapelhouman said one of the plane’s wings and a landing gear unit broke off after impact with the power lines and struck a Beech Street home and day care center. No children were in the day care at the time of the crash, and seven people, including a baby, safely escaped the burning house.

The remaining fuselage of the aircraft continued flying for half a block before hitting the street, spraying burning fuel onto another house, skidding into a BMW, lighting two other vehicles on fire and coming to a rest between 1180 and 1188 Beech St.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials arrived in East Palo Alto late Wednesday to begin their investigation of the official cause of the crash.

Destroyed homes and cars aside, the residents of Beech Street may consider themselves lucky: no one on the ground was seriously injured. Schapelhouman told reporters it was “either very fortunate or intentional” that the Cessna’s pilot brought the plane down on the street and not on houses.

Tesla Loses Three

Tesla Motors, the San Carlos-based company that just last month signaled its intent to go public, lost three of its own in Wednesday’s crash. In a statement Wednesday, CEO Elon Musk said the company withheld the identities of the plane’s passengers while their families were notified.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with them,” Musk said. “Tesla is a small, tightly-knit company, and this is a tragic day for us.”

According to media reports, the Cessna was registered to a company owned by Doug Bourn, a senior electrical engineer at Tesla. Bourn received a B.S. in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1973. Neither Tesla nor authorities at the scene would confirm whether Bourn was at the controls or even on board.

According to a biography on the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Web site, Bourn played a key role in designing and testing the power electronic module for the Roadster, Tesla’s flagship vehicle.

Damaged Tower Zaps Power

Less than half a minute after takeoff, the aircraft met its first obstacle: power lines attached to a 100-foot Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) transmission tower at the eastern end of Beech Street. The lines serve municipal utilities in Palo Alto, said Joe Molica, a PG&E spokesperson.

Palo Alto immediately lost power, stalling traffic signals and backing up traffic along major roads. The outage also stripped power from Stanford Hospital & Clinics, which issued an alert at 9:30 a.m. that its buildings and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital were operating on emergency power. The centers put non-emergency cases on hold, canceled clinic appointments and continued operating cases and care for women in delivery and labor. The hospital’s emergency room was open “only for the most urgent situations.”

Caltrain officials advised drivers in Palo Alto to take extra caution when driving across train tracks on Wednesday, as the outage raised concerns at crossing gates at two intersections.

“The traffic signals are connected to train signals,” said Christine Dunn, a Caltrain spokesperson. “[The gates] are coordinated so that when traffic signals turn red, they correspond to that.”

Dunn said Caltrain officials immediately set up generators at Charleston Road and Churchill Avenue to ensure that gates were working properly. Caltrain also dispatched personnel to monitor both intersections for safety. Trains were “required to slow down” to 15 miles per hour when entering each of the two intersections, Dunn said.

Because of the outage, trains experienced delays of up to 10 minutes throughout the day.

The outage also affected Palo Alto schools, where students enjoyed a laid-back Wednesday playing board games and soaking up the sunlight instead of sitting in dark classrooms.

“We had moved our class from our normal classroom into the library, where the windows were bigger and it would be easier to see,” said Spencer Schoeben, a sophomore at Palo Alto High School. “Not much work got done, though.”

Power was restored to Palo Alto before 6 p.m. Wednesday. Stanford’s central campus was not affected by the outage.

A ‘Miracle’ on Beech Street

Art Jonas, 43, opened the front door of his Beech Street home Wednesday morning to take his son to elementary school. The air was chilly and smelled of Bay saltwater, and a soupy fog shrouded the quiet neighborhood.

The house at 1180 Beech St. caught fire as the plane's main wreckage slid across its driveway. (RYAN MAC/The Stanford Daily)

Then: a flash, followed by a boom.

Just up the block from Jonas’ home, a twin-engine Cessna plowed into three power lines, and a section of the aircraft separated from the fuselage.

“I heard a whirl,” Jonas said. “That was probably the wing going by us.”

Above him, part of the aircraft was hurtling downward while a larger section was still airborne.

The last few days had been particularly foggy, Jonas said. Living closer than half a mile to the end of Palo Alto Airport’s runway for seven years, the father of two has come to fear low-flying planes.

“I knew it was a plane,” he said of the explosions he heard and saw on his street Wednesday morning. “I’ve always been worried about these planes. They always fly pretty low.”

One block down Beech Street, Caryn Ramirez, 18, was changing her month-and-a-half-old baby. They were in a room whose window faced 1180 Beech St.

Suddenly, all went dark. Then: an orange flash.

“I thought the house exploded,” Ramirez said of her neighbors’ home. But it hadn’t. Rather, a twin-engine airplane had crashed into the street and skidded to a rest in front of her house. Burning fuel consumed the front of 1180 Beech St., and a heap of twisted metal sat outside her own home, burning her lawn and her father-in-law’s red pickup truck.

Across the street, Ellen Due, 48, rushed outside to see what had shaken her house.

“It was just a jumbled mess,” Due said. “I didn’t know what it was, but I was screaming for our neighbors to be saved.”

Due normally would have been waiting on the street for her rideshare to work, she said, but on Wednesday, “the Lord had told me to stay home.” Still, staring at the burning fuselage in front of her, Due witnessed something she never wanted to see.

“God is good, but I saw bodies,” she said. “I saw their feet, and there was a deep sadness.”

Agencies responding to Wednesday’s disaster included East Palo Alto police, Menlo Park fire, PG&E, the Federal Aviation Administration, the NTSB and the Red Cross. NTSB officials arrived at the scene late Wednesday to begin their investigation of the crash.

The Stanford Daily’s original coverage of the incident can be found here.

Elizabeth Titus, Kate Abbott and Ryan Mac contributed to this report.

Devin Banerjee was president and editor in chief of Volume 236 of The Stanford Daily, serving from June 2009 to January 2010. He joined The Daily's staff in September 2007. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @devinbanerjee.

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