Authorities Investigate Cause of Mid-Air Plane Collision That Rained Down Debris, Body Parts

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Authorities were trying to learn why two small planes collided over a row of businesses, dropping a macabre shower of debris and body parts and killing someone inside an auto dealership when one of the aircraft punctured the roof.

All four people aboard the two aircraft also were killed in Sunday's crash, on a clear crisp afternoon that seemed ideal for flying. One victim was a student pilot, his family members said, but it was unclear whether he was flying one of the planes.

No one else was hurt, though wreckage fell on three car dealerships, all of which remained closed to customers as investigators combed through the debris in Corona, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles.

People in the area after the collision along the 91 freeway described a horrific sight. Marisela Garay was working a few hundred yards (meters) away at Lucky Greek Burgers when she saw the planes come down.

She and some customers ran outside, where they saw blood and what looked like body parts on the ground.

"There was a lot of stuff everywhere. I was shocked; I couldn't believe what happened," said Garay, 17.

"There were bodies falling out of the sky," witness Hector Hernandez told KCBS-TV. "One of them crashed into the top of a Ford Mustang, and another one fell not too far behind that one on the parking lot."

In one of the car lots, the twisted hull of a plane rested against two vehicles.

Witnesses told authorities that one of the planes slammed into the other. One of the aircraft shattered on impact, while the other spiraled to the ground, left mostly intact.

William Pollack, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, told reporters Monday that the planes did collide in midair.

Authorities have not released the planes' origins or destinations. Pollack said one witness reported that one plane was going east while the other was going north, but other witnesses said one of the aircraft was heading south.

The crash occurred about a mile (1.6 kilometers) south of the Corona Municipal Airport, which does not have a manned control tower.

The crash is the sixth in the area over the past 10 years.

Without the aid of air traffic controllers, pilots are supposed to use visual flight rules when there are clear conditions. Pilots are responsible for their own safety, making sure they steer clear from aircraft and other potential hazards.

Pilots can communicate by radio with one another, but not all do, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said.

Investigators will likely try to determine whether there were any other pilots in the area who saw the crash or heard any transmission between the two planes, he said.

Two people were killed from each plane, Pollack said.

The Riverside County coroner's office identified the dead as Scott Gayle Lawrence, 55, of Cerritos; Paul Luther Carlson, 73, also of Cerritos; Brandon William Johnson, 24, of Costa Mesa; Anthony Joel Guzman, 20, of Hesperia; and Earl Smiddy, 58, of Moreno Valley.

Smiddy was crushed in the car dealership.

Guzman's family told KABC-TV the young man was a student pilot aspiring to go commercial.

"He was really going somewhere with his life, and we just can't believe that he's gone," his aunt Sally Alvarez told the station.

One of the planes was a Cessna 172 registered to William A. Reinke of La Habra, according to aircraft databases.

Reinke told the Los Angeles Times that he knew three of the victims and that the pilots of both aircraft were licensed and experienced. One victim was a commercial pilot, but both were flying for leisure at the time of the crash, Reinke said.

The second plane, a Cessna 150, is registered to Air Corona Inc., based in Dover, Delaware. Many plane owners register their aircraft in Delaware even if they are not based there because of the state's low taxes.