Fire fighters work to extinguish the blaze at SMO Sunday night. (Photo courtesy Ron Casa)

Fire fighters work to extinguish the blaze at SMO Sunday night. (Photo courtesy Ron Casa)

SMO — The president and CEO of Morley Builders, the company responsible for building the Main Library and Shore Hotel, and his son are believed to have died in a plane crash at Santa Monica Airport Sunday night, a company official said in a release.

John Mark Benjamin, 63, and his son, Luke Benjamin, were believed to have been on board the twin-engine Cessna Citation jet, which veered off the right side of the runway and into a hangar at 6:20 p.m. The hangar caught fire and collapsed on to the plane, making the wreckage unreachable initially.

At a news conference Monday afternoon at the airfield, Van McKenny of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, said two cranes would be needed to lift the wreckage of the hangar so investigators could determine how many people were onboard.

There are reportedly no survivors.

The plane was owned by a Malibu-based company called Crex MML LLC. A call made to the White Pages phone number listing for the company address connects to the elder Benjamin’s voicemail. It’s unclear if Benjamin was the owner of the plane.

Robert Rowbotham, president of Friends of the Santa Monica Airport, said he was shocked to hear that a jet hit a hangar.

“I’ve never even heard of a jet having an issue at Santa Monica Airport,” he said. “I’m interested myself. Something broke, that’s what I assume, but again that’s speculation, I’m not an investigator.”

Hundreds of neighbors gathered around the edge of the airport, watching the smoke, according to Rudy Romero, 82, who lives nearby on Clover Street.

“We heard the blast,” he said. “Since I’ve lived here, 51 years, I’ve seen three bad ones here. I’ve seen a lot of them. They scare you.”

Residents like Romero who live near the airport have for years fought to close or limit operations at SMO out of fear of planes crashing into homes, some of which are located within 300 feet of the ends of the runways. Sunday’s crash is sure to elicit more calls for safety enhancements and a ban of larger jets.

The City Council in March 2008 voted to restrict the fastest jets — Category C and D — from using SMO, but the Federal Aviation Administration ultimately blocked that from going into effect.

Romero said he opposes the jets.

“When they had the little planes, it was nice,” he said. “We used to sit out here and have a little barbecue and watch them take off. They were a little noisy, but they weren’t bad. But these jets have to go. The jets are too loud.”

Karin Barrett, who also lives on Clover Street, said she was unfazed by the crash.

“I heard it, but I didn’t see any flames or anything,” she said.

Barrett, who’s lived next to the airport for 30 years, said she’s seen a few crashes and she can mimic the sounds of a failing plane. Once, her children saw the scared face of a pilot in the middle of crash landing.

She isn’t bothered by the noise and said that the threat of danger is everywhere.

“Everywhere else there’s places it could have happened,” she said.

David Goddard, president of the Airport Commission who has come out in favor of restricting flights, said he saw the smoke from National Boulevard as he was returning home.

“The loss of life is tragic, but we’re certainly grateful that it was contained on the airport property and that no residences were affected,” he said. “It reinforces the community desire to materially reduce operations at the airport or close the airport.”

A City Hall statement called the crash “tragic,” and praised the Santa Monica Fire Department’s quick response.

“The fire department arrived within three minutes of the initial call from the airport,” the release stated. “The fire was knocked down within 50 minutes from the time of the first arriving unit.”

City officials are expected to go before the council in March to discuss a range of options for SMO if City Hall is allowed to shut it down or curtail flights following the expiration of an agreement with the FAA. City officials contend the agreement ends in 2015, while the FAA says the date is 2023. 

Options likely to be discussed then range from operational restrictions

or reductions to partial or full closure,” read a statement from City Hall. “However, any decisions about the future of the airport will eventually be made within the context of a complex jurisdictional and legal context.”

There are some who believe that the Surplus Property Act obligates the airport to remain in perpetuity. Many expect a long legal battle. 

 

dave@smdp.com

 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.