A small airplane crashed in a residential neighborhood east of Los Angeles, killing three people in a fiery impact that destroyed a car and set palm trees afire.

Three people on board the plane died in the crash late Wednesday, said Riverside Fire Battalion Chief Mike Esparza. No one on the ground was hurt.

Esparza said witnesses thought the plane started having trouble soon after taking off from Riverside Municipal Airport, less than a half mile away.

Steve Kiser said he was outside his home when he saw the plane coming toward him, barely clearing the power lines. He said the plane veered then nose-dived onto the street.

"I knew he wasn't going to make it," Kiser was quoted as saying by the Riverside-Press Enterprise, adding the plane sounded as if it had engine trouble. "It blew up and all the trees caught fire."

"The pilot did one heck of a job avoiding these homes and preventing anyone else from being hurt," he was quoted as saying.

Firefighters received calls of the crash just after 10 p.m., and when they arrived the plane was engulfed in flames, Esparza said.

A TV news helicopter showed firefighters dousing flames over the smashed remains of the plane and a car.

Riverside is about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.