plane crash and fire
Cause of crash unknown; NTSB to begin investigation

Four people died Wednesday afternoon at Columbia Airport when a twin engine Cessna 310, landing from the north, veered off runway 17 and was engulfed in flames. By the time emergency services arrived on the scene at shortly after 4:30 p.m., "the plane was fully engulfed," said Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Andrea Benson, adding that the identities of the victims were not yet known on Wednesday evening and that the Sheriff's coroner's office would attempt to identify them. Authorities removed the four bodies from the plane about 6:30 p.m.

The crash, which was reported to have occurred at shortly after 4 p.m., also sparked a small vegetation fire that consumed about 100 square yards of low-lying grass and was quickly extinguished by Cal Fire crews. A yellow dump truck, blackened by the flames, stood parked approximately 75 yards from the crash site.

For much of the afternoon and into early evening, dozens of law enforcement officers and emergency crew members congregated near the crash site. There were no reports on what may have caused the crash. Benson said that a team from the National Transportation Review Board would arrive from Colorado on Thursday to conduct an investigation.

Benedict Stuth, Tuolumne County Airports Manager, said, "From the accounts that we have right now it bounced a few times and ended up just east of the airfield." Runway 17 is 4,700 feet long, and the Cessna 310 came to rest at a point toward the end of it, belly-up and perhaps two or three dozen yards from the runway edge. It was unclear at which point along the runway it veered off, although it appeared to have navigated a significant length of it. Firefighting airplanes and at least one small jet, landing on Runway 17 in the opposite direction that the Cessna 310 had attempted to land, touched down Wednesday evening at a point roughly parallel to the plane's final resting point.

Chris Miller, who has been a flight instructor with the Springfield Flying Service for more than a dozen years and has been closely involved with Columbia Airport since 1988, said that although the airport does have its "idiosyncrasies," it was no more difficult to land at than any other airport.

He said Wednesday's crash was the deadliest he recalled. He knew of four fatalities that had been caused by two separate incidents. But each of those had occurred beyond the edge of the airfield. This was the first to have occurred inside the bounds of the airfield, he said. He said the Cessna 310 was built in 1959, but that did not mean the plane was necessarily old.