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A small twin-engine plane attempting to land at a Southern California airport after experiencing trouble crashed on the 405 freeway and burst into flames Friday morning local time, authorities said.
The two people aboard the Cessna 310 were transported to local hospitals after the crash at around 9:30 a.m. local time (12:30 p.m. ET) in Orange County, south of Los Angeles.
The plane can carry six people, but the two injured, described as a man and woman in their 50s or 60s, were the only ones aboard and were the only ones hurt, Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Larry Kurtz said.
An off-duty fire captain on his way to vacation with his family helped save the pair from the plane. Captain John Meffert has been with the Avalon Fire Department on Catalina Island for 17 years. The plane's wing scraped across the hood of his car as it crashed.
“I think the biggest thing was approaching the airplane and thinking, ‘If I don’t see movement, I’m staying back, because I don’t want to be a victim myself,” Meffert told reporters later.
“The wife, her head pops up … if she can be there, I can figure out a way to be there, too,” he said. The plane was engulfed, but there were fewer flames on the passenger side and he pulled the man from the plane, he said.
"I wasn’t even thinking about my own safety," he said. Others on the freeway stopped to help, using small fire extinguishers from their vehicles to try and battle the flames, he said. The woman in the plane was trying to pull the man out of the wreckage, Meffert said.
The plane had departed from John Wayne Airport, and the pilot declared an emergency shortly after taking off. It was trying to return to the airport when the crash occurred.
Video captured from a vehicle on the highway captured the plane descending towards the freeway and landing with a bang, and flames erupting from the aircraft.
The accident could have been worse, authorities said. The 405 freeway in Southern California is notoriously traffic-jammed. "The fact that a plane can crash land on the 405 southbound with only striking one vehicle is very extraordinary," Kurtz said.
"The 405 freeway is no place to land anything, no place to crash a car, it's certainly no place to land a plane," he said.
Three other vehicles on the southbound side struck the plane or parts of the plane, and a vehicle on the northbound side struck the aircraft’s landing gear, a California Highway Patrol official said.
Kai Hisen, 35, was driving on the north side of freeway when the crash occurred.
"I just kind of saw a plane ... coming in but it just kind of went down really quickly," she said. "And then all of a sudden it exploded and there were two explosions. The larger one was on the south side and then I saw a smaller one on the north side, and it was maybe about 500 feet away from where I was so everyone just basically immediately stopped and slowed to a halt on the freeway."
Hisen added that when she drove closer, he could see that it was small plane. "It had broken into a couple pieces on the freeway," he recalled. "The wreckage was completely just black, fire and smoke everywhere.”
Fire crews used foam to douse the wreckage. Foam is used because of the volatile nature of aviation fuel, Kurtz said.
The Federal Aviation Administration said its investigators were on their way to the scene.
According to NBC Los Angeles, the plane was approaching the airport and had flown from Santa Ana to Palm Springs on Thursday afternoon. The aircraft is registered to Twin Props.
John Wayne Airport is an international hub and is a popular landing field for Southwest Airlines. It is the same airport where Harrison Ford flew too close to American Airlines Boeing 737 earlier this year.
According to the Orange County Register, the airport has been called among the "scariest" in the nation for its short runways that leads to sharper take offs and landings.
Meffert, the fire captain who rushed to help the couple, was thankful the fiery crash wasn’t worse.
"I was really amazed. They weren’t burned,” Meffert said. “So, you know, a lot of people had angels over them today."
Andrew Blankstein reported from Los Angeles and Phil McCausland and Ariana Brockington from New York.