Pilot told to climb before plane crash in California suburb

Recordings indicate the pilot of a twin-engine plane nose-dived into a San Diego suburb despite a growingly concerned air traffic controller who repeatedly warned the pilot to climb in altitude — information that will be examined by investigators who arrived at the crash scene on Tuesday.

The Cessna 340 smashed into a UPS van, killing the driver, and then hit two houses to ignite just after 12 p.m. Monday in Santee, a suburb of 50,000 people east of San Diego.

United Parcel Service of America Inc. planned to hold a moment of silence Tuesday for van driver Steve Krueger who was remembered for making work better with his laugh, the company said in a statement. The plane’s owner, an Arizona physician, also died, and an elderly couple whose home went up in flames after it was hit suffered burns.

It was unclear whether others were on board the plane.

An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the crash scene Tuesday morning, according to agency spokeswoman Jennifer Gabris.

Investigators will review radar data, weather information, air traffic control communication, airplane maintenance records and the pilot’s medical records, she said.

The plane had planned to land at Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport in San Diego when it crashed. Shortly before the crash, when the plane was about a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) from the runway, an air traffic controller alerted the pilot that the aircraft was flying too low.

"Low altitude alert, climb immediately, climb the airplane," the controller told the pilot, in audio obtained by KSWB-TV.

The controller repeatedly urged the plane to climb to 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), and when it remained at 1,500 feet (457 meters), the controller warned: "You appear to be descending again, sir."

KGTV-TV, an ABC affiliate, posted video that the station said it received from a viewer showing the plane arcing in the sky and plunging into the neighborhood in a burst of flames.

The plane was owned by Dr. Sugata Das, who worked at Yuma Regional Medical Center in Arizona, the hospital’s chief medical officer said.

Das, a licensed pilot, lived in San Diego and commuted back and forth to Yuma, according to a website for the Power of Love Foundation, a non-profit organization that he directed and is involved in helping women and children overseas that are infected or affected by AIDS and HIV.

He had two young sons.

"As an outstanding cardiologist and dedicated family man, Dr. Das leaves a lasting legacy," Dr. Bharat Magu said in a statement. "We extend our prayers and support to his family, colleagues, and friends during this difficult time."

UPS said it would hold a moment of silence for Krueger to pay respect to his loved ones at 12:14 p.m. Pacific time, marking the time the plane was believed to have crashed into the van.

"Those who knew Steve said he took pride in his work, and his positive attitude and joyful laugh made the hardest days a little lighter," the company said in an emailed statement emailed to The Associated Press. "Steve was held in high regard and will be greatly missed."

People a block away from the scene said their homes shook from the thunderous crash.

Neighbors ran to help and helped rescue a couple believed to be in their 70s from one burning home.

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 in calling through an open window.

With thick smoke inside the home and flames licking the roof, Keeley reached through the window to grab a 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.

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 saw the UPS van 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.

No one was home at the other house that was destroyed, which sold a month ago, Pelloth said.