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Post-Mortem Begins at Scene of Fatal Air Crash

December 25, 1985

CONCORD, Calif. (AP) _ A plane crash that showered debris and burning fuel into a crowded shopping mall near a fogged-in airport was ″one nightmare we’ve always been expecting,″ a fire official said Tuesday. Four people were killed, including the three aboard the plane, and 88 were injured.

The twin-engine plane attempting to land rammed through the roof of a Macy’s store Monday night at the Sunvalley Mall, raining wreckage on an area where children were waiting to tell their dreams to Santa Claus.

″It was a mess, a real ugly mess,″ said David Sylstra, police chief of nearby San Pablo, who was in the 160-store shopping center when the plane crashed 50 feet from him.

″I freaked out ... I thought this was a terrorist bombing at first because that’s the way people looked,″ he said Tuesday. ″People were bleeding and burned, their hair melted, their skin coming off in sheets, their clothes burned off.″

A woman who suffered extensive burns in the shopping mall died Tuesday. Seventeen people remained hospitalized late Tuesday, nine in critical condition with burns, and another 71 people were treated and released, according to spokesmen at the nine hospitals that received victims of the crash.

A long line of children was waiting to visit Santa when the plane crashed through the roof above them.

″It was horrible,″ said the wet, soot-covered Santa, who identified himself only as Christopher. ″I felt something explode behind me. Thank God I didn’t have a child in my lap.″

″An aircraft crashing into Sunvalley shopping center two nights before Christmas, all loaded up like it was - that’s one nightmare we’ve always been expecting ... with the airport as close as it is in the fog,″ said William Maxfield, chief of the Contra Costa County Consolidated Fire District.

The pilot of the Beechcraft Baron was flying by instruments when he radioed a ″missed approach″ at Buchanan Field, just under a mile from the mall, and told the tower he was going around to try again. The plane dropped off radar screens and crashed a few moments later.

Airport manager Harold Wight said visibility at the field was about three- quarters of a mile - the minimum for landings there.

In Tuesday’s chilly morning fog, the plane’s severed tail could be seen hanging from the roof of the two-level mall. Sodden debris littered the floor of the central portion of the sprawling mall, about 35 miles east of San Francisco and largest in the San Francisco Bay area.

Officials said the plane’s fuel rained into the mall through a gaping 50- foot-wide hole punched into the roof. Burning fuel flowed down an escalator; melting tar and red-hot sheets of metal fell from the roof, and acrid smoke blanketed the panicked crowd.

″I saw a person on fire, calling for help in the plane,″ said 14-year-old Vincent Amsden, who saw the nose of the plane pushing through the roof. ″He was on fire, but he died, and fell down.″

″All of a sudden there was pandemonium everywhere. People were running and screaming,″ said Jenny McCoy, 19, of Walnut Creek. She returned to the mall Tuesday. ″I just had to come back and make sure it wasn’t a dream.″

″Many of them were burned by flaming ... fuel,″ said Dr. Michael Burchele, in charge of the emergency room at nearby Mount Diablo Hospital. ″The effect was like napalm.″

The injuries ranged ″from smoke inhalation to burns,″ said Concord Police Lt. Richard Gordy.

Darrell Harguth, an inspector with the fire district, said a damage estimate of ″$3.5 million sounds about right.″

Officials said shops which only have access from inside would remain closed, but larger stores which have outside doors were open Tuesday for the last shopping day before Christmas.

The Contra Costa County Coroner’s Office tentatively identified the dead as James Mountain Graham, 67, and John Frederick Lewis, 48, both of Oakland, and Brian Ward Oliver, 23, of Alamo.

A spokesman for the coroner’s office who refused to give his name said all three of those killed were aboard the plane.

Graham was former president of General Air Services Inc. at Buchanan Field, Oliver was employed by the company and Lewis was a friend of Graham’s, the company said.

Pam Stanford, 22, of Antioch, who suffered burns over 80 percent of her body, died Tuesday at San Francisco General Hospital, said hospital spokeswoman Evonne Zamora.

Federal Aviation Administration officials were on the scene to search for the cause of the wreck.

In July 1984, a plane crashed into a storage shed behind a new car dealership near Buchanan Field, killing all six people aboard.

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