Two people were rescued from the fiery wreckage of a small plane that crashed Friday morning on the 405 Freeway in Orange County, clipped a pickup and skidded to a stop against a median as it burst into flames.
The crash occurred at the MacArthur Boulevard exit ramp near John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana as the Cessna 310 arrived for a landing. Two people -- a 62-year-old man and his 55-year-old wife -- were on the plane, which caught fire and produced a tower of smoke that could be seen for miles around by drivers and workers in nearby office buildings.
The couple had "critical, traumatic injuries," but "had good vitals when they were moved from the aircraft," said Orange County Fire Capt. Larry Kurtz. They were undergoing surgery Friday night and were making progress on recovery.
Their names were not immediately released.
"It was a very surreal moment," said witness Korosh Torkzadeh, who works in the area. "I didn't really hear an impact. I thought the plane had actually made it to the airport, but then we saw it on the 405 Freeway."
Torkzadeh said authorities' response time was "almost instant."
Authorities were praising John Meffert, an off-duty fire captain from Avalon on Catalina Island, who was driving down the freeway when the plane crashed. The 17-year veteran got out of his car and pulled the two occupants from the burning wreckage.
"As the first responders arrived, the individual in question really did extraordinary work helping to get these individuals out of the aircraft," Kurtz said. "He was very calm, very relaxed. Obviously, he's a professional."
The plane went down around 9:30 a.m. just short of the runway, which is adjacent to the freeway, at John Wayne Airport, said Deanne Thompson, spokeswoman for the airport. The pilot declared an emergency shortly after taking off from John Wayne Airport and was trying to return to the airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Ray Spitzer was going surfing for his birthday when he saw the explosion.
"We're going about 65, 70 mph and then we started slowing down quick, so I pulled the car over," Spitzer said.
Witnesses said the plane appeared to crash on the northbound side of the freeway and ended up on the southbound side. Blackstone Hamilton said the plane clipped the rear of his pickup.
"The rear-end of my struck was spun around," Hamilton said. "Thought at first it was a big rig that hit us.
"I checked my passenger, made sure he was ok. We gave each other a hug that we were still alive. That's life, I guess."
Authorities said three other vehicles were struck by either the plane or parts of the aircraft that littered the road as it skidded across freeway lanes.
"There was debris all over the freeway," said witness Christian Romo. "It was insane. It was really scary. We were just praying instantly that they're ok and that their families are ok."
Romo said the plane tilted to its side and almost turned upside-down as it crashed into the freeway median. Several drivers stopped on the side of the road to help the plane's two occupants before firefighters arrived to douse the flames and treat the injured.
"The fact that a plane was able to land and only strike a single vehicle is extraordinary," Orange County Fire Capt. Kurtz said. "Anytime you have a plane crash on a freeway, the potential for a great loss of life exists."
Airport departures were not affected, but the airport was closed to arrivals until about 10:30 a.m., according to airport officials. Nine flights were diverted to nearby airports.
The freeway was closed after the crash. Traffic was backed up for about eight miles in each direction near the airport. All northbound lanes were reopened by about 3:30 p.m., but all southbound lanes remained closed until about 4:45 p.m., when the carpool and far left main lane reopened.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA, as well as the CHP, gathered evidence at the crash scene before removing the plane.