Air Traffic Control Warned Pilot He Was Flying Too Low Moments Before Crash in Santee

Before a pilot crashed in a residential street in San Diego's East County, killing himself and a UPS driver on the ground, Air Traffic Control warned that he was flying too low and repeatedly asked him to gain altitude

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A doctor piloting a twin-engine Cessna C340 that crashed Monday in Santee near Santana High School has been identified as one of at least two people killed in the incident, officials said.

NBC 7's Mark Mullen shares Air Traffic Control audio that explains some issues the pilot was having on his way to the runway.

The plane was headed to San Diego from Yuma, Arizona. It was supposed to land at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in Kearny Mesa, according to the flight plan, but never made it. It is unclear if the pilot was attempting to make an emergency landing at Gillespie Field in Santee, which is just a few miles from where the plane crashed at around 12:15 p.m.

A shot of the Cessna that crashed Monday in Santee. Photo courtesy of Nick Hesler/@nickflightx

According to witnesses, the plane, which had tail number N7022G, went down along Greencastle Street where it intersects with Jeremy Street. The wing of the plane clipped a UPS truck that was nearing a stop sign, killing the driver. The fuselage then slid toward two homes and exploded, witnesses said.

The chief medical officer of the Yuma Regional Medical Center confirmed Monday evening that the pilot of the plane was a colleague.

NBC 7's Omari Fleming shares what we know about the pilot so far.

“We are deeply sad to hear news of a plane owned by local cardiologist Dr. Sugata Das which crashed near Santee,” said Dr. Bharat Magu. Chief Medical Officer at YRMC. “As an outstanding cardiologist and dedicated family man, Dr. Das leaves a lasting legacy. We extend our prayers and support to his family, colleagues and friends during this difficult time."

A family friend told NBC 7 that Das worked at the YRMC but lived in San Diego, flying back and forth frequently.

In audio of Das' exchanges with Air Traffic Control about a half-mile from the runway, a controller can be heard telling Das his plane is too low.

“Low altitude alert, climb immediately, climb the airplane,” the controller told Das.

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.”

You appear to be descending again, sir.

Audio from air traffic controller to pilot just before crash
A small plane crash near a Santee school has caused massive damage to at least two homes in the area.

Shortly before 2 p.m. at a news conference near the crash scene, Santee Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Justin Matsushita confirmed that at least two people died in the crash or the ensuing fire.

"It's a pretty brutal scene for our guys and we're trying to comb through it," Matsushita said, adding that he was unsure if there were additional fatalities. He did say that the debris field from the crash extended nearly a block to the southeast.

An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSA) was expected to be at the scene Tuesday morning, the agency said.

NBC 7's Dave Summers shared what we know about the the signs of distress just before the crash.

In addition to the pair of destroyed homes, at least five more were damaged.

Matsushita said two people were taken to local hospitals for treatment. Neighbors told NBC 7 they are a husband and wife who were saved from the charred home on the corner struck by the body of the plane. The woman was rescued through a window, her hair singed and face burned. Her husband was rescued from the back yard, pulled through the fence to safety by neighbors.  

"We do not yet know how many people were on board," Donnell Evans, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration said in part in an email sent to NBC 7. "The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate. The NTSB will be in charge of the investigation and will provide additional updates."

Officials at the site said they were unsure how many people were traveling aboard the aircraft, but said it was very likely anybody inside the plane was killed by the impact and subsequent fire. The Cessna C340 is a six-seat plane, according to multiple sources.

"We believe that the injuries are nonsurvivable for anyone that was on that plane," Matsushita said.

Photos: Small Plane Crashes in Santee, California

At around 3 p.m., an official with UPS confirmed the truck that was clipped by the plane was one of theirs and said one of their drivers had died at the crash scene.

“We are heartbroken by the loss of our employee and extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends," read a statement from the delivery company. "We also send our condolences for the other individuals who are involved in this incident, and their families and friends."

UPS planned to hold a moment of silence Tuesday at 12:14 p.m. for their fallen colleague.

The NTSB will be handling the investigation and will provide updates, Evans also said, adding that neither "agency identifies people involved in aircraft accidents."

Smoke from the crash was visible above Santee and the surrounding communities. A photo tweeted out by @ouijacorn showed an inferno raging in one of the homes, a man who was possibly a neighbor standing nearby pointing a house at the raging fire.

First responders from the Santee Fire Department and the San Diego Sheriff's Department were dispatched to the scene, authorities told NBC 7.

By 1:30 p.m., the dozens of firefighters battling the twin blazes had extinguished the fires in both structures for the most part and were just pouring water into the buildings, where a small amount of gray smoke was still visible.

Santee Witnesses Describe the Crash

Michael Keeley 43, ran barefoot outside when his home shook. He saw the UPS truck in flames and found two neighbors at a burning home calling through an open window.

With thick smoke inside the neighbors' home and flames licking the roof, Keeley stood on a rock and reached through to grab the woman's arm and help her climb out of the window. Her forearms were burned, and her hair was singed.

NBC 7 has team coverage of a plane crash in Santee that killed at least two people, including a UPS driver. Here's what we know, so far.

“She kept saying, ‘My puppy, my puppy,’” Keeley said.

Pelloth lives across the street from the retired couple and saw the house and the delivery truck engulfed in flames. Mangled ruins of vehicles were in the couple's driveway.

Erik Huppert, 57, rushed to the couple’s home after his house shook. He joined Pelloth to pull boards off the fence to save the husband, who was walking in the backyard.

The woman and her husband were burned on their arms but were still able to walk and talk, Pelloth said.

“Both were definitely in shock, but at least they were alive,” said Huppert, a military contractor.

Read more from heroes and witnesses here.

A neighbor's home security camera captured a plane going down in Santee. The plane crashed east of Santana High School killing at least two people.

The Crash Scene in Santee

At least two homes were destroyed by fire, with crews fighting the flames with water cannons and also trying to cool down other buildings nearby. Two or three other houses were also damaged, Santee Deputy Fire Chief Matsushita said.

Several charred vehicles were also visible at the crash site.

A shot of the charred truck at the scene.

Matsushita said power had been cut off to 10 homes in the neighborhood while first responders worked the scene. Deputies with the San Diego Sheriff's Department said that a temporary evacuation point was set up by the Cameron Family YMCA at 10123 Riverwalk Dr. in Santee.

Hours after the crash, SkyRanger 7 flying overhead captured devastating scenes, with the two homes reduced to ashes and framing timbers, firefighting foam and wet earth surrounding both structures. The charred wreckage of the Cessna lay broken behind one of the houses. Dozens of people stood around the somber scene, most in bright-yellow vests or their firefighter turnout gear.

Officials said Jeremy Street between 2nd Street and Mast Boulevard was closed to traffic; North Magnolia Avenue between 2nd Street and Mast Boulevard was also closed for hours.

Santana High School, which is part of the Grossmont Union High School District, is a few blocks west of the crash site and just north of the airport at Gillespie Field.

Shortly before 12:30 p.m., school officials tweeted out that no students had been harmed when the plane came down and that the campus was secured. About a half-hour later, they said the campus had been returned to its normal status and that students were either on their lunch break or were being released for the day if they had no more classes.

NBC 7 Investigates looked into plane crashes in the Santee area going back 30 years.

The crash near Gillespie is not the first in Santee; three years ago, two people and a dog were killed when an aircraft came down in Santee in February. According to the NTSB, there have been four fatal plane crashes in the East County community, including the one in 2018. Six people have died in the incidents.

The Associated Press contributed to this story -- Ed.

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