Fatal crash into airport hangar renews calls for runway protection
By Gary Walker
A twin engine Cessna Citation 525A jet landed at Santa Monica Airport Sept. 29 and immediately skidded into an airport hanger, killing the passengers inside the airplane and causing an explosion at the general aviation airfield.
The jet, which left Hailey, ID the day of the crash, was transporting Morley Builders President and CEO Mark Benjamin and his son Luke, whose office is on Ocean Park Boulevard near the airport.
Morley Builders Vice President Charles Muttillo appeared to acknowledge that Benjamin and his son were on board the airplane.
“We are heartbroken at the loss of Mark Benjamin and his son Lucas in a tragic accident,” Muttillo said in a statement obtained by The Argonaut on Oct. 2. “Mark has been our president and CEO since 1981 and Luke was a senior project engineer. We are proud to be associated with the company that Mark’s family founded.
“He had a profound influence on each of our employees, the Southern California landscape, our local community, and the construction industry. We are committed to building on his legacy.”
Morley Builders is a Santa Monica-based company that provides general contracting and concrete services. Among the major projects that the company has worked on in the city is the Santa Monica Main Library.
The airplane crashed into an airport hangar after going off the right side of the runway at approximately 6:20 p.m., causing the structure to fall onto the plane, which was then engulfed in flames.
Santa Monica Fire Department officials, who responded to the accident, said the blaze spread to two other hangars. Four hangars in all were damaged by the fire.
“There are no survivors in that hangar or in the plane,” Santa Monica Fire Department Capt. John Nevandro told CBS News. “It was impossible to get in (the hangar). It was collapsing when we got there.”
Nevandro called it an “unsurvivable crash.”
Santa Monica Deputy City Manager Kate Vernez thanked the city’s fire department for its response.
“We praise the Santa Monica Fire Department’s quick response to the scene,” Vernez said in statement. “The fire department arrived within three minutes of the initial call from the airport. The fire was knocked down within 50 minutes from the time of the first arriving unit.”
Due to the hangar falling onto the Cessna, the victims could not be immediately removed from the aircraft.
“The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting a full investigation of the accident and will release a report,” Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor told The Argonaut the day after the accident. “We have no information yet on the cause of the accident.
“No emergency was declared prior to the accident.”
Officials from the national safety board held a press conference near the 25th Street gate of the airport Sept. 30. Authorities said at least four bodies were recovered from the wreckage Oct. 1.
Residents of nearby Sunset Park have been lobbying the FAA for years to install runway safety protection at the end of the runway, which is less than 250 feet from residential neighborhoods.
The crash was less than 150 from some homes in the Sunset Park neighborhood near Clover Park.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D- Venice), whose district also includes Santa Monica, wrote a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta requesting immediate action to address safety conditions at the airport in the wake of the accident.
“The people of Santa Monica – and especially those living next to the airport – deserve your full attention. They have been warning for years that the airport is an accident waiting to happen,” Waxman wrote. “The tragic crash on Sunday illustrates how inadequate safety measures jeopardize the surrounding community and endanger pilots and passengers.”
Cathy Larson, a Sunset Park resident, referenced a statement by a judge during a legal action initiated by Santa Monica several years ago when the city was seeking to ban certain types of jet aircraft at the city-owned airport for safety reasons. The jurist, Larson recalled, listed the fact that there had never been an accident involving a jet at the airport as one of the reasons not to allow the ban to remain in place.
“Well, now we have one,” said Larson, who does not live near the site of the accident.
The congressman referenced the presumed deaths of Benjamin and his son and offered his condolences.
“It’s reported that the victims were a father and son who owned a successful construction business in Santa Monica. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the victims,” he said.
Santa Monica Councilman Kevin McKeown said there will be time to discuss runway safety and the future of the general aviation airfield after the families of the victims of the crash have had time to bury their loved ones.
“We haven’t yet recovered the bodies and mourned the dead,” he noted. “When our sadness passes and we return to the airport’s future, the facts of this week’s crash and what it may reveal about neighborhood safety will be part of the information on which we base thoughtful and achievable goals in a highly complex legal and regulatory context.”
President and CEO of the Santa Monica History Museum Louise Gabriel was saddened to hear about reports of the deaths of Benjamin and his son.
“I was deeply saddened to learn that Mark Benjamin and his son Luke lost their lives in the horrific plane crash at Santa Monica Airport,” she said. “Santa Monica has lost one of its finest and most noble citizens. Mark was a generous contributor to a number of worthy causes, which included education and nonprofit organizations.”
The fatal accident came three days before an organization that proposes turning the airport into a public park after the city’s agreement with the FAA expires in 2015 was scheduled to meet Thursday, Oct. 3.
FAA officials contend that the agreement expires in 2023.