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3 Tesla employees killed in Calif. plane crash

Aircraft smashed into residential neighborhood; no one on ground hurt

Image: Menlo Park firemen look at the scene of a small plane crash
Paul Sakuma / AP
Menlo Park firefighters look at the scene of a small plane that crashed in East Palo Alto, Calif., on Wednesday.
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  Plane crashes into Calif. neighborhood
Feb. 17: FAA spokesman Ian Gregor discusses the possible cause of the crash.

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updated 9:56 p.m. ET Feb. 17, 2010

EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. - A twin-engine plane carrying three employees of electric car maker Tesla Motors struck a set of power lines after takeoff Wednesday and crashed into a fog-shrouded residential neighborhood, raining fiery debris over homes, sending residents running for safety and killing everyone aboard.

But the crash somehow caused no injuries or deaths on the ground despite a wing slamming into a home where a day care center operated. The seven people inside the house, including an infant, all escaped moments before the home went up in flames.

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Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the Cessna 310 either struck a 100-foot (30-meter) electrical tower or clipped its power transmission lines and broke apart, dropping debris throughout the working-class Silicon Valley neighborhood. It was not immediately clear if the dense fog played a role in the crash.

The city of Palo Alto said most of the city and surrounding area — about 28,000 customers — had no electricity for most of the day because of the crash.

A spokeswoman for Palo Alto-based Facebook Inc. said its offices were without power but the outage was not affecting the Web site. Hewlett-Packard Co.'s corporate headquarters also were dark, and employees were asked to find other places to work Wednesday, a spokeswoman said.

‘This is a tragic day for us’
The crash rattled Tesla Motors, one of only a few companies producing and selling purely electric cars. The identities of the employees were not released. The plane was owned by Doug Bourn of Santa Clara, identified by a Tesla spokesman as a senior electrical engineer at the company.

"Tesla is a small, tightly knit company, and this is a tragic day for us," Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a statement.

The Cessna crashed Wednesday morning shortly after takeoff from the Palo Alto Airport and was bound for Hawthorne Municipal Airport in Southern California, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The crash site was close to Tesla's headquarters in San Carlos.

The occupants of the homes have been accounted for, although authorities can't be completely sure of the fatality count until crews begin clearing the wreckage, Schapelhouman said.

"Either by luck or the skill of the pilot, the plane hit the street and not the homes on either side," he added. "That saved people in this community."

The crash comes at a difficult time for Tesla, which employs 515 people worldwide and just three weeks ago disclosed plans to hold an initial public offering of stock.

In its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said its future business is dependent on the successful rollout of new vehicles.

The two-door Roadster sports car is the only product that the money-losing company currently sells, retailing for $109,000. It has sold about 1,000 since its inception, and its next vehicle — the Model S sedan — is due in showrooms in 2012. It has a base price of $57,400, although a federal tax credit could reduce the cost to less than $50,000.

Tesla has not said when specifically it plans to go public, nor has it said how much it intends to raise.

Witness accounts
Kate McClellan, 57, said she was walking her dog when she saw a plane descend from the foggy sky and strike the tower, causing power lines to swing wildly in the air.

"It burst into flames, and then it kept flying for bit before it hit some houses and exploded," McClellan said.

Pamela Houston, an employee of the day care in the house struck by the plane's wing, said she was feeding an infant when she heard a loud boom that she initially thought was an earthquake until she "saw a big ball of fire hit the side of the house."

Houston said she screamed to the others in the house — the owner, the owner's husband and their three children — and the group safely escaped before the home went up in flames.

"There are not even words to describe what it felt like," she said. "I am very thankful to God that he allowed us to get out."

Heather Starnes, who lives in the neighborhood, was leaving her home to take her daughter to school when she saw the crash.

“We heard something and it blew up in the air,” she told KTVU. “There was this big explosion. Part of it hit my neighbor’s house who has a day care and part of it hit my neighbor’s other house. They are burning.”

She added, “Praise God there were no kids in the day care."

'It sounded like thunder'
Annie Bracksher, who lives four houses away from the crash site, told the San Francisco Chronicle she heard one loud boom followed by a second that shook nearby houses.

She said a wing of the plane fell off and hit the back of the house that operates as a day care. The rest of the plane crashed into a pickup truck in the street and burst into flames, she said.

Karen Ramirez, 18, said she had just changed her infant daughter's diaper and was about to feed her when she saw flames outside her home. Two seconds later, "the whole house shook. It sounded like thunder," she told the Chronicle. 

© 2010 msnbc.com

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