Coroner: 4 bodies inside jet that crashed near LA

Wednesday - 10/2/2013, 2:24am EDT

JUSTIN PRITCHARD
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Forensic specialists worked to identify the remains of four people pulled Tuesday from the charred wreckage of a private jet that crashed into a hangar after landing, while federal safety investigators curtailed their work due to the partial government shutdown.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office took the remains from the aircraft at Santa Monica Airport and tried to match new dental X-rays with X-rays of people believed to be aboard, Lt. Fred Corral said. That process could be completed Wednesday.

Among the likely deceased were Mark Benjamin, CEO of a prominent Southern California construction company, and his son, Luke Benjamin, a senior project manager with the company.

"We are heartbroken at the loss of Mark Benjamin and his son Lucas in a tragic accident," Charles Muttillo, vice president of Santa Monica-based Morley Builders, said in a written statement.

According to the company's website, past projects include Southern California landmarks such as the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the Getty Villa art museum and parts of the Hollywood Bowl.

Mark Benjamin's twin-engine Cessna 525A crashed shortly before sunset Sunday as it arrived from Hailey, Idaho.

Several people who knew Mark Benjamin told The Associated Press he would typically pilot the plane between Southern California and Idaho, where he owned homes, though they did not know whether Benjamin was at the controls Sunday.

Mark Benjamin lived in Malibu but would frequently spend weekends in the outdoors that he loved around the Sun Valley area of Idaho, said longtime friend John French of Ketchum, Idaho.

French, also a pilot, said that Benjamin started flying the Cessna about six years ago.

"He flew a lot," French said. "He was not a casual pilot."

Benjamin was an avid nature photographer who would rise early to make pictures while others slept, French said. He also loved the stars, and built a home in Ketchum with a retractable roof so that a large telescope could take in the night sky. His other son, Matt, works at the University of Colorado planetarium.

An active philanthropist, Benjamin had a particular interest in nature conservation and youth programs. Executives with the Idaho Conservation League and the Boys & Girls Club of Malibu praised a man they said practiced generosity for its own sake -- not the recognition some seek. After listening intently, he often would conclude a group discussion with a trenchant suggestion or observation, friends said.

During Sunday's flight, there was "no communication with the pilot indicting there's a problem with the aircraft at any time," Van McKenny, lead investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said Monday.

It was not immediately clear who investigators believed the other two dead people were. Coroner's officials said all four were burned beyond recognition.

Cranes had to be brought in to lift the wrecked hangar off the plane before efforts could begin to retrieve remains and the cockpit voice recorder. Also recovered were the remains of two cats and a dog.

The investigation was affected by the federal government shutdown that began late Monday on the West Coast.

Investigators were to gather all evidence that could not be preserved from the active accident scene and then stop their work, NTSB spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said shortly before the shutdown went into effect. The NTSB could not be reached for comment Tuesday because its public affairs office was closed.

NTSB staff left Tuesday morning and the charred wreckage of the plane was taken off site for potential future investigation, acting airport manager Stelios Makrides said.

The airport reopened to plane traffic Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday, the safety board's McKenny told reporters that after touching down, the pilot "veered off the right side of the runway and then as he continued down, the turn got sharper and sharper."

The plane crashed into a row of five connected hangars about 400 feet from the end of the 5,000-foot runway, where it caught fire.

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